Defense is optional in the NFC South.
New Orleans spent 2011 setting all manner of offensive record. Carolina gave a hint of what is to come from them with Cam Newton’s record-breaking year. And Atlanta brought in a new offensive coordinator to keep up in the “arms” race heating up down South.
This is one of the most competitive divisions in football and it has a long-standing tradition of worst-to-first finishes and surprise winners. And with the amount of offense and lack of defense floating through these four franchises this should be one of the more volatile races in the league.
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Here are my NFL predictions and betting odds and my 2012 NFC South preview:
New Orleans Saints Predictions
2011 Record: 13-3 (8-0 home, 5-3 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 12-4 ATS, 9-7 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 1st offense (1st pass, 6th rush); 24th overall (30th pass, 12th rush)
2012 Odds: 18/1 to win SB, 11/1 to win NFC, 1.3/1 to win NFC South, 10.0 wins O/U
Offense: This group needs no introduction. Drew Brees is coming off a record-breaking passing season and could make a run at 6,000 yards just for the fun of it. The Saints lost burly guard Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem. They also won’t have Sean Payton calling plays. So instead of averaging 34.2 points per game again they could – gasp – only average about 31.8! These guys are going to put numbers on the board. They have a solid stable of runners and receivers, still have a very good line, and they have Brees, who is in total control of the offense. They are going to score. A lot. The question will be whether or not we see an NFL-first: a total of 60.0. The Saints play Carolina twice, at Green Bay, and Philadelphia. There is a chance that Packers game (they played a 42-34 barnburner on opening night last year) could be over 60.0.
Defense: Yeah, this is where the problems lie. The Saints were bigger and more physical last year than in seasons past. They actually held half of their regular season opponents to 17 points or less. But they had too much bend and too much break, and for the second year in a row they were pushed around and lit up on the road in the postseason. Now they may have to play the season without leader Jonathan Vilma. But they have replaced him with tough, smart linebackers in David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton. Departed corner Tracy Porter was always underappreciated. And Roman Harper is just terrible in pass coverage and a major weakness at safety. Personnel aside, the key will be how this veteran defense adjusts to Steve Spagnuolo’s new scheme after playing in Gregg Williams’ blitz-crazy scheme.
Skinny: They outscored opponents by 208 points, the highest number in the NFL. But they couldn’t stop Alex Smith or Vernon Davis so they didn’t get a crack at the Giants in the Superdome. Can the defense play better under Spagnuolo’s guidance? After all of the drama in the offseason – which has been dissected ad nausea – that is the biggest question about this team, in my eyes. People keep pointing to the loss of Payton as a deal breaker for this team getting back to the Super Bowl. I think that’s ridiculous. The Colts went to the Super Bowl just three years ago with rookie head coach Jim Caldwell – JIM CALDWELL! – at the helm, and Mike Tomlin won the Super Bowl in just his second year in 2008. These guys will be fine. If they can stop anyone.
Atlanta Falcons Predictions
2011 Record: 10-6 (6-2 home, 4-4 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 7-8-1 ATS; 7-9 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 10th offense (8th pass, 17th rush); 12th defense (20th pass, 6th rush)
2012 Odds: 27/1 to win SB, 12/1 to win NFC, 1.4/1 to win NFC South, 9.0 wins O/U
Offense: It is all about Dirk Koetter this year. The new offensive coordinator is bringing an aggressive, attacking style to an offense that has been accused of being too conservative in years past. I think that should be a breath of fresh air for Matt Ryan and a set of skill players among the best in the NFL. Ryan is outstanding – critics of him are idiots – and should have a big year. But there are two issues that could hold this group back. The first is that Michael Turner just looks fatter and slower each season. He isn’t a breakaway threat and that also limits this unit’s big play potential. Turner can still grind out yards and has some 100-yard games in him. But he is no longer a 300-carry workhorse. Also, the offensive line has been significantly weakened through free agency the last two years and they have some consistency problems, especially in pass protection. However, skill will win out. And I expect the Falcons to put up some even bigger scoring numbers than last year’s No. 7 scoring group.
Defense: The Atlanta defense has been a somewhat overlooked aspect of this team over the last few years. They are solid in all facets. But that is almost the their weakness – they are just solid, and not spectacular. This group desperately, desperately needs more big plays. And they brought in new DC Mike Nolan to help ramp up the pressure for a group that hasn’t finished higher than No. 19 in sacks over the past five years. They added playmaking corner Asante Samuel and veteran safety Chris Hope to add some big play ability to what is an excellent secondary. Linebacker depth is a problem. And if 2011 free agent bust Ray Edwards can’t bounce back or if Kroy Biermann doesn’t break out then this team really doesn’t have many answers to their rush woes.
Skinny: I think Atlanta is the best value on the board to win the Super Bowl this year at 27-to-1. People knock this team for failing to win in the playoffs. But this team has posted four straight winning regular seasons – something never done in franchise history – and are 43-21 in that stretch. Their playoff losses came at Arizona in 2008, to Green Bay in 2010 and at New York in 2011. That means their losses came to the last three conference champions and if Arizona had held on for a minute more the Falcons’ last three postseason losses would have come against three eventual Super Bowl champs. There is no shame in that. This core group has had time to grow together. They have experienced postseason frustration. Now with some new coordinators they could be ready to take the next step.
Carolina Panthers Predictions
2011 Record: 6-10 (3-5 home, 3-5 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 9-7 ATS, 10-6 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 7th offense (13th pass, 3rd rush); 28th defense (24th pass, 25th rush)
2012 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 18/1 to win NFC, 4.5/1 to win NFC South, 7.5 wins O/U
Offense: Cam Newton got all of the credit for this team’s success last year. He is incredibly athletic and puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He’s excellent. But he also has a ton to work with. Their three-headed running back monster of Stewart, Tolbert and Williams provides ground support. Steve Smith is a Top 5 wide receiver and Greg Olsen is among several nice complimentary weapons. Carolina’s offensive line was exceptional last year. But they lost two starters and how that group performs this year is critical to Newton’s development. The entire group is tough to stop and they should be even better now that they have some experience together.
Defense: It almost wasn’t fair what this defense had to endure last year, finishing No. 2 in the NFL in adjusted starts lost to injury. Their three best players were hurt before Week 2 and the group was struggling to put bodies on the field most of the season. Their poor depth led to them surrendering a league-worst 8.9 points per game in the fourth quarter, which in turn cost them at least a couple more wins. The secondary is particularly shaky and is coming off a year where they gave up 64.9 percent completions. Chris Gamble is still legit. But other than that they are going to try to make it work with the same group that couldn’t stop anyone last year. Ron Rivera is a defensive guy. So I’m sure it burns him that they were so bad on that side of the ball this year. But without any sort of free agent talent infusion we’ll see if these guys can pull it together with scheme, cohesion, and hopefully some injury luck.
Skinny: Be careful with the Panthers this year. There is a ton of hype surrounding this team and people might be expecting too much, too soon. The first month of the season has home games against New Orleans and the Giants and road games against division rivals Tampa Bay and Atlanta. They also end with four of six on the road. There are no gimme games on this schedule and I think it would take a major improvement for them to even crack .500. Sure, they have the potential to win 10 games and make a run at the playoffs. But there is no way in hell that they are going to and I really could see them flaming out with a 5-11 season against this brutal slate. They are going to be a dangerous team for bettors this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Predictions
2011 Record: 4-12 (3-5 home, 1-7 road)
2011 Against the Spread: 4-12 ATS, 10-6 vs. Total
2011 Rankings: 21st offense (16th pass, 30th rush); 30th defense (21st pass, 32nd rush)
2012 Odds: 120/1 to win SB, 42/1 to win NFC, 10/1 to win NFC South, 6.0 wins O/U
Offense: Tampa Bay could not stop turning the ball over last year and that had a ripple effect on the entire team. They threw 24 interceptions and lost 16 fumbles, meaning they turned the ball over nearly three times per game. Obviously nothing will improve for this unit unless those numbers change drastically. Josh Freeman was unsettled and impatient last year, missing throws and forcing things because the Bucs had to chase so many games. Tampa Bay signed overrated Vincent Jackson in the offseason. I think the jury is still out if he, Mike Williams and some of the other young receivers can cobble together a corps that can challenge the other exceptional ones in their division. New coach Greg Schiano wants to pound the ball in the rushing game with head case LeGarrette Blount and rookie Doug Martin. But how will that pan out if this team falls behind to the high-powered offenses they face?
Defense: At 12.8 yards per point the Bucs were tied with the Vikings in terms of the the easiest teams to score upon. Injuries were certainly a problem, especially along the defensive line. They lost tackle Brian Price and end DeQuan Bowers, so more attrition issues are cropping up this season. But the biggest problem for the defense is the play of the back seven. The linebackers are average at best and there isn’t an All Pro on the roster. The signing of Eric Wright was supposed to bolster the secondary. But both he and Aqib Talib are erratic. Ronde Barber is still making plays. But he is obviously not a leader that the D can rally around. The other safety spot is up in the air and rookie Mark Barron will be learning on the fly. In all, this team needs to show a lot more toughness and heart than it last season. And even if they do I don’t know that the talent level is up to the task of facing the high-powered South offenses.
Skinny: The Bucs were outscored by 207 points last year, second-worst in football. But the most troubling thing about this group was the way that they absolutely rolled over in the last two months of the year. They were beaten by 19 or more in five of their last eight games. Can new coach Greg Schiano instill more discipline and toughness? And even if he does, is Schiano up to the task of NFL strategy? They were -34 in Net Big Plays last year. Combine that with the turnover issues and you see why this group was a disaster. But at this point there are a lot more questions than answers and I don’t expect a quick turnaround.
Robert Ferringo is a professional handicapper and has posted back-to-back profitable seasons (college and pro). Robert has turned a profit in three of four football seasons and over the last nine months his clients have earned nearly $10,000 in profit with his football selections. He is looking forward to building on his stellar football handicapping resume again this fall and you can check him out here. Also, you can also get $60 worth of free Robert Ferringo member picks (no salesman, no credit card, no obligation!) by clicking here for more info.