Arguably the toughest division in football last year, the NFC South is poised for another impressive season in 2006. While the Carolina Panthers
seem to be everybody’s NFC favorite to reach South Florida in February, the rest of the pack boasts plenty of proven and potential talent on all sides of the ball. Look for at least one Wild Card to come out of the South if not two.
John Fox’s Panthers have flirted with winning it all 2 out of the last 4 years and look to do the same in 2006. Ever since Jake Delhomme went toe to toe with Tom Brady in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Panthers have been only a piece or two away from returning to The Show. Going into training camp this summer, the Panthers believe they have at least one of those pieces in now Number Two Man, Keyshawn Johnson. Such a valuable addition to the offense alongside the Panthers perennially top 5 ranked defense could be the main reason there are huge fall expectations in Charlotte.
Last year, Steve Smith won more than a little MVP attention with his Triple Crown receiving year, leading the league with 1,563 yards, 103 catches, and 12 touchdowns. Now with Keyshawn Johnson around to pull away potential double coverages, Smith should light up secondaries once again. With fiery Jake Delhomme at the helm, the Panthers offense should move the ball with relative ease, even with running back Deshaun Foster, a newcomer to the ‘every-down’ ranks. If there is a weakness in this unit, it’s at tight end, with Michael Gaines only hauling in 155 yards and 2 TD’s in 11 games last year. But with so much firepower at every other position the Panthers should wind up in the end zone plenty of times this fall.
The Panthers’ defense has developed over the years into a punishing unit that now ranks in the top 3 overall defenses in the league. With a beast like Julius Peppers terrorizing league QB’s and impressive corners Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble locking down most receivers, the Panthers will make it tough to move the football comfortably. Having cemented up the middle this offseason with big tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu, this unit shouldn’t get torched by the run too often, which was what killed them in the NFC Championship game last year against Seattle. Look for the Panthers’ D to be a strength again this year and to produce at least a few Pro Bowlers.
Though the schedule looms for the Panthers, complete with tough battles against divisional foes Atlanta and Tampa Bay as well as the other toughest division in football, the NFC North, this team could just have enough to get through. While it may be too much to get that coveted first round bye, the gauntlet should battle test Carolina and prepare them for another deep run into the playoffs.
Last year, the Atlanta Falcons choked. After starting the season 6-2 and looking primed to march into the playoffs, Atlanta finished just 2-6 to miss back to back winning seasons (for the first time in franchise history) as well as any hope of postseason play. Don’t remind Head Coach Jim Mora. Mora and his staff have returned this summer to wipe away any memory of what could have happened last year and replace it with positive goals for this year’s extremely talented squad. With key offseason acquisitions on defense and yet another year with Michael Vick immersed in the West Coast offense, the Falcons look to maintain their winning ways for a full season.
Call it a dead horse, but the Atlanta Falcons’ offense rests squarely upon the shoulders of Mike Vick. Though critics continue to blast the 26 year old phenom for his passing inadequacies, Vick has still won over 60% of the games he has started in his career. His big play potential undoubtedly aids the Falcons league leading rushing attack and if Number 7 can manage to throw for anywhere near 200 yards per game then this unit will rack up both yards and touchdowns. Though Vick lost one of his favorite targets for the year in Brian Finneran, the receiving corps still boasts huge potential with big target Michael Jenkins and deep threat Roddy White. Together with Warrick Dunn’s rediscovered production and TE Alge Crumpler, they should make this offense one of the league’s scariest.
The Falcons defense got quicker up front this offseason, a frightening prospect for league QB’s. With terrorizing end John Abraham on the roster, the D-line now boasts three huge sack leaders along with Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman. While those three terrorize in the backfield, the “Fastest Man in the NFL,” CB D’Angelo Hall will be waiting to pick off stray passes. With veteran safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker shoring up a weak tackling unit from last year, this defense should be one to reckon with. The weakness here is thought to be against the run, but the return of inside LB Ed Hartwell, who was lost most of last year due to injury, should allow Atlanta to solidify up the middle.
Expectations are always high in Atlanta, at least since Michael Vick and owner Arthur Blank got to town. While this team also faces a tough schedule against the South and the AFC North, their ability to run the ball and that tenacious defense should carry them into the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Life’s been tough in Tampa since winning the Super Bowl 3 years ago. Coach John Gruden has managed to keep the Bucs defense among the league’s best, but a youth movement behind center has stalled Gruden’s normally progressive offensive teams. Look for this 2006 Tampa team to improve upon their playoff worthy effort from last year.
The offense is young with Chris Simms at the helm and 2nd year RB Cadillac Williams getting most of the carries. But with offensive artist Gruden expressing excitement over both of these players’ improvement, look for this offense to resemble those productive units that Gruden is used to. The line is questionable with a complete reshuffling of personnel but if defenses can be kept off balance enough to get the ball to WR Joey Galloway and open it up for Williams to cruise, then Tampa makes another powerful point scoring squad in the South.
Defensively it’s the same story for the Bucs. Though ‘Sack Man’ Warren Sapp is long gone, self proclaimed “Best End in the NFL since Reggie White” Simeon Rice has taken up the slack. This is an extremely talented unit that still runs their aggressive scheme to perfection. Despite long term talents Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber only getting older, they can still perform at an elite level and even make the Pro Bowl. This defense looks to be one of the league’s stingiest once again, and it will need to be to guide this team back to the playoffs.
New Orleans Saints
Though the caliber of the South is thought to drop off significantly when you get to the Saints, a new regime and the lucky addition of phenom RB Reggie Bush gives New Orleans fans at least something to be excited about this season.
New in camp this summer is Drew Brees, deemed a gamble by some because of his damaged shoulder, but who should give the Saints a much more reliable arm than newly departed Aaron Brooks. If Brees can stay healthy, receivers Joe Horn and Donte Stallworth should be able to get open downfield. The running attack, already solid with Deuce MacCallister, takes on a whole new dimension with the addition of Bush, who should make more than a few highlight reels come Sunday. Despite these bona fide weapons, the Saints offensive line is a mess with a slew of injuries in camp and a general lack of depth. Though there may be some bright spots this fall, New Orleans will still have to wait and begin building around their newly emerging star.
Defensively, the Saints will struggle. With the linebacking corps lacking depth and already devastated by injury, there are gaping holes in what is an already lackluster unit. In a division with so much opposing offensive firepower, the Saints should dwell in the basement once again. Hopefully, Reggie Bush can spur this team on to at least a spoil or two instead of another season as a doormat.