Doc's 2007 NFC South Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 08/24/2007
The NFC South might just be the most underrated division in football over the past six years. They have sent a representative to the NFC Championship Game in five consecutive seasons, and one of the four residents of this division has played for the right to go to the Super Bowl in eight of the past 11 years.
But the thing that sticks out the most to me about the NFC South is that, from a handicapping standpoint, it's basically a scissors-paper-rock league. What I mean by that is that seemingly no matter what the season or what the situation, certain teams just happen to always trump certain other teams when it comes to covering the spread. OK, try to see if you can follow this:
New Orleans owns Atlanta (5-1 against the spread) but has struggled against Tampa Bay (1-3 ATS). The Saints own the Panthers in Carolina (6-0) but can't cover against them at home in the Superdome (0-5). The Buccaneers hold their own against the Saints, but they cannot solve the Falcons (0-3) or the Panthers (2-6). Atlanta can't score against the Panthers either (1-4), and are even worse against the Saints, but they dominate the Bucs, especially in Tampa (3-1). And all of that leaves Carolina, who owns Atlanta and Tampa but has that weird home/away-thing going on with the Saints.
It's all pretty easy, really.
That's really what it's all about: who is going to cover when two divisional teams meet. The rest is for tourists. I'm not going to mess with the historical trends I'm just going to play on them. But for those of you who are curious as to what I think about these clubs as we approach opening weekend, here's Doc's 2007 NFC South Preview:
1) CAROLINA PANTHERS
2006 Record: 8-8 (4-4 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-9-1 (4-5 home, 8-2 road); 7-9 vs. total (3-6 h, 5-5 r)
2006 Rankings: 24th offense (15th pass, 24th rush); 7th defense (4th pass, 11th rush)
2007 Odds: 30/1 to win SB, 10/1 to win NFC, 9/5 to win NFC South, 9.0 wins O/U
Outlook: Focused. That's how this team looks right now. Will it be enough to make up for their lack of depth and unstable performance from their key players? I don't know. But what I do know is that John Fox does his best work from the shadows. Fox is basically Bret Saberhagen - he's only good in odd numbered years. In 2002 and 2004 Fox's teams posted matching 7-9 records. But in 2003 and 2005 they won a combined 27 games and appeared in the NFC Championship Game twice.
The burden of this season falls completely on the shoulders of Fox and Jake Delhomme. It wasn't just that Jake had a poor year last year, it's that he completely lost his cool while doing it. The zone-blocking scheme that new OC Jeff Davidson has implemented has appeared to help an underperforming offensive line. But that's just in the preseason. Will they be able to pick up that third-and-three late in December against Jacksonville or Dallas? I don't think so, but we will see. If Steve Smith plays 16 games and gets 90 touches though, I don't see how they aren't in a playoff hunt in the final two weeks.
As for the defense, it all comes down to the linebackers. I'm not even going to pretend that Dan Morgan can stay healthy. He'll be gone in Week 3. So the brunt of the defenses' performance falls on Thomas Davis and rookie Jon Beason. Here's an early prediction for you: Beason and fellow rookie Tim Shaw will end up starting together by Week 10.
The Panthers start the season with four of their first six games on the road. That seems like a tough draw, except that all four away games are winnable and three of the four are indoors. Carolina is 12-3 against the spread in domes in Fox's five years as coach. Look for them to rout Atlanta in Week 3 and if both teams have winning records when they meet in New Orleans, Carolina could be the perfect upset pick.
2) NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
2006 Record: 11-7 (5-4 home, 6-3 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 11-7 (2-6 home, 4-3-1 road); 7-8-1 vs. total (3-5 h, 3-3-1 r)
2006 Rankings: 1st offense (1st pass, 19th rush); 11th defense (3rd pass, 23rd rush)
2007 Odds: 12/1 to win SB, 7/2 to win NFC, 1/1 to win NFC South, 9.5 wins O/U
Outlook: You know what sucks? The week after Mardi Gras sucks. The hangover. The herpes. The high interest rates on the credit card that you maxed out. Not good times. Well, that's kind of what we're looking at here for the Saints. They rode the wave of emotion and momentum as America's Team last year. What now? I can assure you that the Saints won't sneak up on anyone this season, and with brutal road games at Indy, at Seattle, and at Chicago to close the season their path back to the postseason will be tougher.
Offensively, the Saints should again field one of the top six or seven units in the game. Their running back combo is the best in the league and Drew Brees has looked razor sharp in the preseason. I do think that they'll miss Joe Horn and I think Marques Colston will suffer the sophomore slump. But on the whole there won't be a huge drop off - assuming Jamal Brown returns at near 100 percent.
Defensively, it's a different story. The Saints were just 23rd against the rush last year and didn't really upgrade the front seven. The linebackers are good-but-not great, and I think that will catch up with them in January. The key will be if new starting DTs Kendrick Clancy and Antwan Lake will outperform last year's starters, Hollis Thomas and Brain Young. If the Saints defense can improve and work its way into the Top 15 then I think the Saints will be playing in January. If not, I just think that the pendulum will swing back the other way and that the breaks they caught last year could sink them, so to speak, this year.
3) TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
2006 Record: 4-12 (3-5 home, 1-7 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 6-9-1 (2-6 home, 4-4 road); 9-7 vs. total (3-5 h, 5-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 29th offense (26th pass, 28th rush); 17th defense (19th pass, 17th rush)
2007 Odds: 60/1 to win SB, 25/1 to win NFC, 4/1 to win NFC South, 7.5 wins O/U
Outlook: After their 2005 Wild Card run I was one of the only prognosticators in the country to predict that the 2006 Bucs would suck. And I took a lot of heat for it from the Doc's Sports fan base. But at the end of the day, the Tampa organization is still in a weird limbo that has wrapped its arms around several other bottom-tier teams in this league. Will they be better than a four-win team this year? It's possible. But I know they're not going to the playoffs, and this year that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
We've seen what happens to Jeff Garcia when he's expected to carry mediocre talent. He was the field general for three non-playoff teams - the 2003 49ers, 2004 Browns and 2005 Lions - that went a combined 9-20 in his 29 starts. He was injured and ineffective, failing to post a passer rating over 81.0 or complete over 59 percent of his passes in any of those three seasons. And if Tampa Bay thinks he's going to be its savior they are mistaken. He was at the right place at the right time in Philly last year so I'm not buying his career erection, er, resurrection. The line is reconstructed and should be improved, but the skill players are all inconsistent. I mean, how long can you ask a 52-year-old Joey Galloway to carry an offense.
The loss of Simeon Rice may end up being addition by subtraction on the Bucs defense. The guy is a jerk, and his continuous bitching wasn't exactly what the team needed. But Rice's release also highlighted another point about the once-mighty Tampa defense: it's really old. Right now it appears that five of their 11 starters have logged more then 10 years in the league. That's a lot of groin pulls and crack back hits. I'm not saying they won't be good, I just don't think they'll be good enough to carry a streaky offense?
4) ATLANTA FALCONS
2006 Record: 7-9 (3-5 home, 4-4 road)
2006 Against the Spread: 8-8 (3-5 home, 4-4 road); 4-11-1 vs. total (4-4 h, 3-3-2 r)
2006 Rankings: 12th offense (32nd pass, 1st rush); 22nd defense (29th pass, 9th rush)
2007 Odds: 100/1 to win SB, 50/1 to win NFC, 6/1 to win NFC South, 8.0 wins O/U
Outlook: We've got some real structural, fundamental problems here. They have a first-year coach that's trying to implement a new system. Only he's got all the wrong players. For instance, the Falcons are stuck with smaller offensive linemen that were brought in to operate Alex Gibbs' zone-blocking scheme. Well, Petrino likes a stonewall offensive line, and he doesn't have close to that. Petrino needs a QB whose strength is accuracy and receivers who can run precise routes, and he doesn't have close to that. And the offensive growing pains would be dulled if Petrino had a stout defense to rely on. He definitely doesn't have close to that.
Yeah, the Falcons are a bloody mess. They have injuries and confusion all over the field - to go along with the dark pall of some unfortunate offseason circumstances. They have zero depth and the fickle fan base is already jumping ship. There is absolutely nothing redeeming or exciting about this team (other than Jerious Norwood). I think this will be one of the best teams in the league to fade, especially early and late in the season. I wouldn't underestimate them downright tanking games to secure the No. 1 pick and Brian Brohm (Petrino's prodigy). It's going to get ugly, ugly down in the Dirty, Dirty.
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