by Robert Ferringo - 08/04/2005
Before taking a single snap this season, Michael Vick has already hurt his team's playoff chances. Unlike a costly turnover or poorly thrown ball, this blow wasn't Vick's fault. But unintentional as it may be, the Michael Vick Experience has already had a severe negative impact on the 2005 Atlanta Falcons, and has opened things up in the NFC South.
According to their opponents winning percentage from last year, Atlanta has the league's 16th toughest schedule this season. The truth is, they have the most difficult schedule in the league. Their first seven games are against teams that finished .500 or better last season, including Philadelphia, New England and Minnesota. But the Dirty Birds have a tough road this year not just because of who they play, but when and where they play them. Here are some highlights:
- It begins on Aug. 6, when Atlanta and Indianapolis meet in Tokyo, Japan for a preseason game. This trip will be an amazing experience for the Falcons players, but it will most assuredly throw their training camp schedule off kilter.
- The Falcons' regular season begins at home against the defending NFC champion Eagles on Monday, Sept. 12. This is the first of three Monday Night games that Atlanta plays this year, resulting in three short weeks. After the Philly game Atlanta has to turn around for a West Coast trip out to Seattle.
- Atlanta also has a short week in Week 12, when they travel to Detroit to meet the Lions on Thanksgiving. That game comes just four days after what should be a fierce divisional clash against Tampa Bay.
- Finally, Week 15 will be another shorty for Atlanta. That week they have a Saturday afternoon meeting on Christmas Eve in Tampa Bay, just six days after a Sunday night tussle on Dec. 18 in blustery Chicago.
The three Monday night games are a direct result of their success last year. But the motives behind the trip to Tokyo, the Thanksgiving game and the Christmas Eve game are all fairly obvious. The NFL and its television partners are looking to garner as much attention and national exposure for Vick as they can get. More ratings mean more money, so they're using their most popular player (according to jersey sales) to boost interest. The only problem is, this brutal schedule is setting the Falcons up for failure and also borders on overkill. And to be honest, Vick is incredibly exciting but he isn't that good a quarterback. Putting him on national TV so many times not only will hurt his team's chances of returning to the playoffs, but NFL execs may inadvertently expose the man they're hoping to promote.
Besides Vick and the Falcons, I think the South will be one of the three most competitive divisions in the NFL this season. The Carolina Panthers are two years removed from its near miss in the Super Bowl. They're hoping that they're free of the injury woes that decimated their roster last year. The New Orleans Saints still have arguably the most talent in the division. They won their final four games last season and are hoping that this is the year that they put it all together. Finally, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a steep underdog, but still has enough talent on its roster to give people some trouble.
2005 NFC South PreviewATLANTA FALCONS
2004 Record: 12-6 (8-1 home, 4-6 away)
2004 Rankings: 20th offense (1 run, 30 pass); 14th defense (9 rush, 22 pass)
2004 Against the Spread: 8-9-1 (4-4-1 home, 4-5 road); 6-11-1 vs. pts. (3-6 h, 3-5-1 r)
2005 Odds: 15-1 to win Super Bowl, 7-1 to win NFC, 6-5 to win NFC South, 9.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 16th (.500 opponents win %)
Returning starters: 18 (10 offense, 8 defense)
Key acquisitions: Edgerton Hartwell, LB (from Balt.); Ike Reese, LB (from Philly); Barry Stokes, OT; Matt Lehr, G (from STL); Roddy White, WR (draft)
Key departures: Ed Jasper, NT (to Oakland); Chris Draft, LB (to Carolina); Jay Feely, K (to NYG); Roberto Garza, G (to Chicago); Cory Hall, S (to Wash.); Travis Hall, DE
Key stat: In franchise history, Atlanta has never had back-to-back winning seasons.
Offense: Atlanta was the No. 1 rushing team in the league last year (2672 yards), but that number is slightly inflated due to Vick's 902 yards. He was running for his life most of the time because the line is weak when it comes to pass blocking. That's part of the reason they rushed for more yards per game (167) than they passed for (150).
Defense: These guys were vastly underrated last year, and the addition of Hartwell will bolster an already solid linebacking corps. Rod Coleman should have gotten more consideration for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. However, he's had some more off-the-field issues this summer. Without the run-stuffing Jasper, Coleman is the key to how this defense fares.
X-factor: Wide receivers. Peerless Price, or No. 1 picks Michael Jenkins (2004) and Roddy White (2005) need to provide Vick with a deep threat. Tight end Alge Crumpler is the go-to guy, but if this team is going to score the points it'll need to win, one of the WR's needs to have a big year.
Outlook: I still think this is a tough team, but I expect a noticeable dropoff. They had a ridiculously easy schedule last year, and were totally overmatched against Philly in the NFC title game. If they continue to run the ball and play good defense they could head back to the playoffs. I'm thinking 8-8.
2004 Record: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road)
2004 Rankings: 13th offense (9 pass, 28 run); 20th defense (18 pass, 17 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 9-6-1 (3-5 home, 6-1-1 road); 7-8-1 vs. pts. (2-6 h, 5-2-1 r)
2005 Odds: 17-1 to win Super Bowl, 6-1 to win NFC, 2-1 to win NFC South, 9 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 19th (.492 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 20 (10 offense, 10 defense)
Key acquisitions: Mike Wahl, G (from GB); Freddie Jones, TE (from Arizona); Ken Lucas, CB (from Seattle); Idrees Bashir, S (from Indy); Chris Draft, LB (from Atlanta); Thomas Davis, S (draft)
Key departures: Mushin Muhammed, WR (to Chicago)
Key stat: The Panthers are 0-5 against Atlanta when Mike Vick starts. Offense: The theme of the team last year was injuries, and they crushed the offense. But they have DeShaun Foster and Steve Smith back this season, and added Jones at the TE slot. Details are still pretty murky about Stephen Davis' health, but Nick Goings proved himself last year by handling the rushing load. The line is improved, but isn't as good as the one that took them to the Super Bowl two years ago.
Defense: The heart of this defense - the front four - was very average last year with the exception of Julius Pepper. If they revert to 2003 form, there is enough skill and toughness here to have the division's top unit. They overpaid for Lucas, but his presence allows Ricky Manning Jr. to go back to the nickel corner, where he'll be more effective.
X-factor: Kerry Colbert. Muhammed was a big loss. He was the perfect compliment to Smith on the outside, and one of the reasons that the Panthers didn't resign Moose is because of the strides that Colbert made last year.
Outlook: If they stay healthy, they have the best team in this division. However, that's not to say that Atlanta and New Orleans will both roll over for them. I see them making the playoffs, but I don't see them as a Super Bowl threat.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
2004 Record: 8-8 (3-5 home, 5-3 road)
2004 Rankings: 15th offense (12 pass, 27 run); 32nd defense (27 pass, 30 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 8-8 (2-6 home, 6-2 road); 7-9 vs. pts. (3-5 h, 4-4 r)
2005 Odds: 60-1 to win Super Bowl, 22-1 to win NFC, 7.5 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 20th (.492 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 20 (10 offense, 10 defense)
Key acquisitions: Dwight Smith, S (from TB); Jermane Mayberry, G (from Philly); Az Hakim, WR (from Detroit)
Key departures: Ashley Ambrose, CB (from KC); Tebucky Jones, S (to Miami); Jerome Pathon, WR (to Seattle)
Key stat: Their 129 penalties for 1,141 yards were both the most in the NFL.
Offense: So much talent, so little production. This has to be the last year that Aaron Brooks has to prove himself. He is just 35-34 as a starter since 2000. He needs to be more consistent. They have three good-to-very good receivers, a solid tight end, and a strong offensive line. There's no reason that they can't be a top 10 offense.
Defense: Their front four dominated at times last year. They need to sustain that energy for longer stretches, and realize that a 3rd-and-4 in the second quarter can be just as important as a 3rd-and-4 in the fourth. Mike McKenzie (five INT's) was a real nice pickup from Green Bay last year, and has helped stabilize the secondary.
X-factor: Deuce McAllister. He has 4,103 yards rushing since 2002. However, once he injured his ankle last year the offense never really got back on track. If he's healthy for all 16, this team could easily win the division.
Outlook: I absolutely refuse to bet on this team. At all. I think Haslett is the worst coach in football because these guys have no heart, no discipline and they underachieve so much every year (32-32 the past four seasons).
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
2004 Record: 5-11 (4-4 home, 1-7 road)
2004 Rankings: 22nd offense (14 pass, 29 run); 5th defense (1 pass, 19 run)
2004 Against the Spread: 5-9-2 (4-3-1 home, 1-6-1 road); 5-11 vs. pts. (2-6 h, 3-5 r)
2005 Odds: 50-1 to win Super Bowl, 30-1 to win NFC, 7 as O/U win total
2005 Strength of Schedule: 18th (.492 opp. win %)
Returning starters: 17 (9 offense, 8 defense)
Key acquisitions: Chris Hovan, DT (from Minn.); Anthony Becht, TE (from NYJ);
Key departures: Chidi, Ahanotu, DT (to Arizona); Cosey Coleman, G (to Cleve.); Mario Edwards, CB (to Miami); Ian Gold, LB (to Denver); Brad Johnson, QB (to Minn.); Joe Jurevicius, WR (to Seattle); Ken Dilger, TE.
Key stat: The Bucs gained 93.1 rush yards per game. The NFL average was 116.6.
Offense: Brian Griese filled it up the last 11 games of the '04 season under Jon Gruden, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. Perhaps Chucky can resurrect Griese's career the same way he did with Rich Gannon in Oakland. Michael Pittman had an excellent second half of last season, but the injury-prone runner can't be counted on.
Defense: Two years ago the defense collected 40 turnovers and scored nine touchdowns. Last year, they had 16 turnovers and only three touchdowns. That is perhaps the best example I can give that the dominant days of the Bucs defense are over. With Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, they still have an excellent pass defense, and they still have individual talent, but this isn't a Super Bowl-caliber defense anymore.
X-factor: Offensive line. This was, and still is, the weakest link on the team. It's the reason why they couldn't run the ball last season, and the reason why they went through three quarterbacks in 16 games. The bad news is that it hasn't improved.
Outlook: Tampa Bay is by no means a bad football team. There is a solid nucleus here, and some outstanding players at certain positions. They'll battle all season, but I can't point to an area where they're better than Atlanta or Carolina. Look for some upsets outside of the division.
If you enjoyed Doc's 2005 NFC South preview, check back throughout the week for more NFL division previews.
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