The NFC South has been the focus for most of the NFL’s controversy this offseason with the “Bounty- gate” scandal hitting the New Orleans Saints resulting in numerous suspensions, including to Head Coach Shaun Peyton, the first NFL Head Coach to be suspended. Three coaches and GM Mickey Loomis were suspended by the NFL, the person who suffered the harshest penalty defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had already left the organisation for the St. Louis Rams, so his lifetime ban will have less effect on the Saints, but with their Head Coach missing all season and their “interim Head Coach” Joe Vitt missing for the first 6 games of the regular season this is bound to impact the team. Despite this the Saints are still favourites to with the bookmakers to top the NFC South at 6/5. The Saints are a team who thrive on adversity and with the news that four players involved in the case, including the talismanic linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who had initially been suspended had their suspensions revoked in time for them to feature in the opening round of the 2012 season then the impact of the scandal could be a motivating one for players who will want to win for their coaches.
Offensively the team won’t look much different to last season’s team who lost out to San Francisco in 32-36 point thriller in the play offs, with the possible exception of Nick Toon at Wideout for the departed Robert Meachem. The defence under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be interesting to watch, they have three exceptional players in Vilma, Barrett Ruud and Curtis Lofton but they all play in the middle linebacker position and in their base 4-3 only one middle linebacker can be on the field at once. Traditionally Spagnuolo’s defences have relied on “exotic blitzes”, a concept he learned whilst assisting the legendary Jim Johnson at the Eagles, however if the Saints continue to give up more than 5 yards per run as they did last year and struggle to get any push from their front four then their blitz packaged could be largely redundant.
The Falcons are the bookmaker’s second favourites for the division title at 5/4 and a brief look at their schedule this season they have a very good chance at making the playoffs. They have avoided the offseason controversy that seems to have been prevalent among a large section of the league. On the field a lot will rest on the shoulders of Matt Ryan, who in the past has shown that he is a perfectly capable Quarterback during the regular season, but his Tony Romo- esque quality to crumble in the post season could be a major stumbling block on the Falcons path to the Super Bowl. Ryan is 27 now and this season, with the Falcons generous schedule, could be his break out season, Tony Gonzales certainly thinks so as the record breaking 36 year old Tight End has the belief the Falcons can go all the way and has extended his career for yet another year. On the other side of the ball the Falcons have not really made any moves that make you sit up and pay attention, they should have a solid defence, but with the exception of Brent Grimes in the backfield they seem to lack the explosiveness that championship sides have and with their front seven they may struggle to pressurise opposing Quarterbacks with any consistency.
The Carolina Panthers may prove to be the team who run the Falcons closest n their pursuit of the division and with Head Coach Ron Rivera having a whole offseason to prepare his players and stamp his mark on the defence they have the potential to surprise more than a few of the so called “big boys” this season. Their first draft pick Luke Kuelchy looks to be one of the most explosive and exciting defensive players drafted this year and having won not only the Butkus award for the best college linebacker, but also the Bronko Nagurski award for best collegiate defensive player in 2011 they have seriously upgraded their defence from last season. They also drafted Frank Alexander a Defensive End from Oklahoma to add depth to their front four and if the defensive line can afford Kuelchy & his fellow linebackers John Beason and James the Anderson the fraction of a second they need to get into the backfield a lot of Quarterbacks will have problems against the Panthers this season. Offensively the biggest question is will Cam Newton suffer the dreaded “sophomore slump” or “second season syndrome” as teams adjust to his ability to throw and run equally well. Not everybody expected him to be as successful as he was last year but the Panthers offensive line did a very good job of protecting him and with solid pass catchers like Greg Olsen and Brandon Lafell combined with the explosiveness of Steve Smith and Louis Murphy the passing game looks like it should function more than capably. The Panthers added Fullback come Running Back Mike Tolbert from San Diego in the offseason and in combination with stalwart backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart added to Newton’s ability to move the chains with his legs the Panthers have the ability to adopt a very balanced offense and since they averaged 25.4 points per game and 389.8 offensive yards per game opposing teams will do well to keep up with them. The key for the Panthers will be the first 4 weeks of the season, they play 3 divisional games in the first month of the season and if they surprise the Falcons in the Georgia Dome they could start the season with a 3-1 record overall and a 3-0 record within their division.