NFL Offseason: Good News and Bad News for the NFC South

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Mar 30, 2013

Pro football guru Russell Baxter looks at a different NFL division each week. You can also see the AFC East, NFC East, AFC North, NFC North and AFC South.

By Russell S. Baxter
Cold, Hard Football Facts Mouth of the NFC South

Dating back to realignment in 2002, there’s only one division where a team has yet to capture the top spot two years in a row.

Welcome to the NFC South.

A year ago, the Atlanta Falcons ran away with the division title, finishing six games better than the Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But it’s also interesting to note that the Falcons finished 13-3 last season, all three of those losses within the division. In fact, all four teams in the NFC South went 3-3 within their own ranks.

And how’s this for bizarre? The Panthers were minus-6 in point differential, the Saints were plus-7 in the same category and the Buccaneers were minus-5.

It’s safe to say that this is an entertaining foursome. And as you know by now, be it recently or historically, there’s always some interesting numbers that we all find fascinating in terms of trends, one of the many aspects that makes the National Football League the game we all love.

Atlanta Falcons (13-3)

The Good News: Before the arrival of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008, the Falcons had never enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons and had yet to make consecutive playoff appearances.

But over the last five seasons, the franchise has yet to finish below .500 and have been to the postseason three straight years and four times over that span. Since 2008, only the New England Patriots (60-20) have a better regular-season record than Atlanta (56-24)…

Speaking of Matt Ryan, there is so much focus on he and the lack of success in the playoff but it’s interesting to watch his development as a passer in terms of production. The Falcons’ quarterback threw 16 touchdown passes during his rookie season, followed by 22 scores in 2009, 28 in 2010, 29 in 2011 and a career-high 32 in 2012…

The Bad News: It depends on your perspective. The team has shifted its offensive emphasis in the last year or so and it culminated in a 2012 seasons in which wide receivers Roddy White (1,351) and Julio Jones (1,198), as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez (930) totaled more receiving yards than running back Michael Turner had rushing yards (800).

Last season, only three teams in the NFL totaled fewer rushing yards than the 29th-ranked Falcons … Speaking of the number 29, this was the total sacks accumulated by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s unit in 2012, 10.0 of those by defensive end John Abraham.

Fortunately, Atlanta offset that with 31 takeaways, including 20 interceptions. But the Falcons’ run defense was an issue all season and in the playoffs. Case in point that despite owning a 17-0 second-quarter lead against the 49ers in the NFC title game, San Francisco would total 29 carries for 149 yards rushing in the comeback win. Atlanta finished the afternoon with 81 yards on 23 attempts…


Carolina Panthers (7-9)

The Good News: After a dismal start by he and his team, quarterback Cam Newton put up some impressive numbers during the second half of 2012.

The first-overall pick in 2011 threw 11 touchdown passes compared to only two interceptions while rushing for 387 and four scores in the Panthers’ final seven games, five of those resulting in wins…

It may surprise some that while total yards can be a deceptive figure, it’s worth noting that the Panthers did finish 10th in the league in total defense this past season, a big improvement from 2011 when only four teams in the NFL gave up more total yards.

Part of the credit goes to a pass rush that got 23.5 of its 39 sacks from defensive ends Charles Johnson (12.5) and Greg Hardy (11.0), while 2012 first-round linebacker Luke Kuechly was a tackling machine and earned 2012 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors…

The Bad News: Slow starts have been a problem for these Panthers two straight years now. While 2011 was head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton’s debut seasons in Carolina, much more was expected in 2012.

Still, under this regime, the Panthers have opened the year 2-8 in consecutive seasons. The team rebounded to win four of its last seven games in 2011 and went 5-1 down the stretch in 2012. But those starts were enough to put the club behind the eight ball for the entire year…

The Panthers averaged 130.5 yards per game rushing in 2012, down from the previous year (150.5 yards per game). But the bigger issue was the fact that Newton (741) actually led the team with 741 yards on the ground, four more than running back DeAngelo Williams, who got 200 of his 737 yards rushing on the final Sunday of the season…


New Orleans Saints (7-9)

The Good News: A year after setting the NFL record for passing yards in a season (5,476) in 2011, quarterback Drew Brees followed that up with a league-high 5,177 yards in 2012.

In the 93-year history of the National Football League, there have been six 5,000-yard passing performances and Brees is the owner of three of them…

While the team certainly missed head coach Sean Payton this past season, the Saints’ ability to put points on the board didn’t waver.

Dating back to 2006 and the arrivals of Brees and Payton in the Crescent City (including playoffs), the club has scored 30 or more points in 59-of-120 total contests…

The Bad News: It’s hard to overcome a bad defense and even harder to make up for one that makes unwanted history. The 2012 Saints allowed an eye-popping 7,042 total yards to opponents, the most in one season in NFL annals.

As for the previous record, it was set more than 30 years ago by the then-Baltimore Colts, who allowed a whopping 6,793 yards of total offense during their 2-14 season of 1981…

While Drew Brees not only led the NFL this past season in passing yards and touchdown passes (43), he also tied for the NFL lead with 19 interceptions, a feat equaled by Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo. Five of those interceptions came in a Week 13 Thursday night loss to the Falcons, a game which also saw Brees’ NFL record streak of games with at least one touchdown pass end at 54…


Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

The Good News: After starting 4-2 in 2011, the Buccaneers lost their final 10 contests and it was the end of the Raheem Morris Era in Tampa.

Enter head coach Greg Schiano, who won more game in the first two-plus months than the team managed during all of the previous season. Despite another late-season skid, the Bucs did improve three games in the win-loss column and ended the season with a road win over the NFC South champion Falcons…

While the Buccaneers still have plenty of work to do on the defensive side of the football, there was some progress made in some areas. After finishing dead last in the league in rushing defense a year earlier, no team gave up fewer yards on the ground this past season than Tampa (although some of that could be the result of the NFL’s worst pass defense in 2012).

Still, after giving up 494 points in 2011, the Bucs did stop … some of that, allowing exactly 100 fewer points (394) during Schiano’s first season…

The Bad News: Since finishing 12-4 in 2002 and capturing Super Bowl XXXVII, the Buccaneers are a combined 69-91 in the regular season and haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007.

Over that 10-year stretch, the franchise has had only four winning seasons and made just two playoff appearances in 2005 and ’07, both resulting in losses…

Although quarterback Josh Freeman finished with 10 more touchdown passes (27) than interceptions (17) this past season, a late slump put a bit of a damper on those final figures. Freeman threw for only two scores compared to nine interceptions in his final three games of 2012 after serving up 25 touchdown passes and only 8 interceptions in his first 13 outings last season…


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