With the Falcons in first place, how could I be anything but full of sunshine? That will be reflected in this week's unusually happy edition of our NFC South tour.
All you need to know about the Falcons is that they're 5-2, have outscored the rest of the division and are in excellent shape barring an implosion. After a much-needed bye week, the Falcons get a chance to take on the Bucs, potentially putting them at 6-2. With the South being as
crappy useless cringeworthy competitive as it is, 10 wins may be enough to lock up a playoff berth. Woohoo.
But it's time to take a trip around the South. If you're happy and you know it, hit the jump.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 4-2
Raheem Morris drank a pitcher of his own Kool-Aid before addressing the media this week, and emphatically declared his squad the best in the NFC. That's utter nonsense, and I won't stand for it, sirrah!
Nonetheless, the Bucs are a team on a frighteningly meteoric rise. Josh Freeman has become a turnover-free machine, LaGarette Blount is developing into a decent running back, the offensive line is slowly improving and the Bucs boast an opportunistic defense. There's a lot to like, even if they're a year or two away from making any noise even if they keep this pace up long enough to get into the playoffs.
Well-rounded teams like the Steelers and Saints (!) (?) have utterly annihilated the Bucs, and the Falcons have enough talent on both sides of the ball to do the same. It would still be a mistake to take them lightly, as their secondary is underrated and has generated 10 interceptions. It would also be a mistake to worry about their pass rush, which is last in the NFC with a pitiful five sacks. They're a team that gets it done in coverage.
I still expect the Bucs to end this season with about 8 wins, plus or minus one, but they've impressed me so far. Freeman ought to be something special.
New Orleans Saints, 4-3
The Saints are a mess.
The 4-3 record masks the fact that they've been beaten by two of the worst teams in the NFL (Cardinals, Browns) and barely hung on against another (49ers, though we did the same). Their play calling seems less aggressive, their fans are openly making excuses for a struggling Drew Brees and the injury bug has decimated their running game. Now they're drawing the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, and they may be on their way to a .500 record.
There's a weird assumption that Super Bowl teams are destined to repeat, even when there's no evidence that will happen. The Saints last year embarked on a magical run thanks to aggressive play calling, a stellar season from Brees and a relatively injury-free year. They didn't get noticeably better this season, and their team got a year older while many teams across the NFL made acquisitions to get younger and better. Their last two drafts have yielded minimal fruit.
That said, these Saints are still more than capable of finishing the year with a winning record and a playoff berth, and they're still the Falcons' primary rival for the NFC South crown. They just have to start playing like they want to be.
Carolina Panthers, 1-5
The Panthers are an even bigger mess.
Don't get me wrong: They looked decent against the 49ers last week, holding on thanks to a heroic effort from quarterback Matt Moore. John Fox should be smacked across the face with a grandfather clock for being idiotic enough to bench Moore after what amounted to one bad game in favor of Jimmy Clausen, who was an abomination as their starter.
The problem with the Panthers is hard to define. They certainly have the talent across the board (okay, minus receiver), but their defense has been lackluster for long stretches and their passing game has been horrendous. They've got pieces to build on and may soon contend again, but it won't be this season. They'll be lucky to win 5 games.
Division Predictions, Week 8