Knee-jerk, gut feelings, hunches... call them what you will, but I'm sure all of us have thought briefly about how we think the NFC South could shape up in 2012. While our brethren over at 'The Falcoholic' predicted the Panthers would finish a paltry 7-9 this season, we wont hold that against them too much in doling out our own predictions.
With the exception of New Orleans it's easy to see that the remaining three teams in the division all got much better in the off-season. The Buccaneers made splashy moves in free agency, the Falcons acquired a big-time cornerback via trade, and the Panthers are sticking to the course of building their foundation through the draft. Without further ado here are my early predictions for the NFC South in 2012, and after the jump a look at how I made these decisions.
Atlanta Falcons: 11-5
Carolina Panthers: 9-7
New Orleans Saints: 9-7
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 6-10
More after the jump
A division win for Atlanta: The Falcons had two major issues to address this off-season; they needed to solidify their interior offensive line, and get a talented player for their secondary. The draft fell perfectly for Atlanta allowing them to get the #1 center in the draft in Wisconsin's Peter Konz in the second round. Konz will likely backup incumbent starter Todd McClure, but last year the 35-year old McClure missed three games, and while out the offensive line looked completely lost. Having a talented player like Konz helps them greatly, and adding Asante Samuel via trade was a fantastic move. This was a ten win team in 2011, and they'll get to 11-5 this year.
The Panthers continue their climb, but just miss the cut: These are early predictions, but Carolina are still extremely thin at several positions where they need depth. There is no team in the division more reliant on luck with injuries than the Panthers, and it's unrealistic to believe they'll make it through a 16 game schedule unscathed. Many fans will probably look at a nine-win season as a let down, but remember- these are collard greens, not instant grits. Another three wins is a realistic and attainable goal for 2012, and I think the Panthers are still one year removed from really entering the NFC elite.
The Saints take a step back, but not as big as some think: I'm not buying talk of four and five win seasons for the beleagured Saints, even with everything that's going on off the field. Yes, the organization are in shambles- but it's not like the players they have are going to forget how to play football. Drew Brees is an extension of Sean Payton on the field, and with several years as the general of this offense I think he'll be able to orchestrate it just fine. On defense they'll be missing several starters, but New Orleans did an uncanny job bolstering the positions where the suspensions came from, which will help mitigate some of the losses. They wont hit double digits in 2012, but they'll still be a dangerous team.
Tampa Bay make the important first step: A year removed from a dismal 4-12 season. We know what it's like to see a team brimming with talent have a terrible year. Greg Schiano is installing his system, much like Ron Rivera spent 2011 installing his. Like all rookie coaches there will be goofs, growing pains and mistakes that all coaches suffer, and that alone will prevent them from making a big impact. The Bucs and Panthers are both a good year away from taking that next big step, but for 2012 I think Tampa Bay's season mirrors the fortunes of the 2011 Carolina Panthers- close, but no cigar.
What do you think Panthers fans? How do you think the NFC South will shake out in 2012, and why?