The NFC South; home to two despicable rivals, one finalist on "Who Wants to play in Los Angeles?" and our very own Carolina Panthers. This division is known for parity, maybe more so than any other in the NFL. From 2003 to 2009 (excluding '08) the last place team from the prior year won the division the following year. It should also be noted that all four teams in the Dirty, Dirty South have accomplished this feat.
In the past decade three of the four teams from the NFC South have played in the Super Bowl. The Bucs following the 2002 season, next the Panthers following the 2003 season and finally the Saints following thousands of dollars in bounty payouts and ending the careers of Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. The Panthers were the only NFCS team who didn't finish though, falling to the Patriots 29 - 32. In the past decade we have also seen a team from the NFCS represent our division in 7 of the 10 NFC Championship games. Pretty impressive if you ask me.
In 2012 we saw no hint that the NFC South would be changing anytime soon. The Panthers started off slow with a 2-8 record ultimately winning 5 of their final 6 games to end the season with a 7-9 record. The Saints had a similar 2012 storyline. Starting off with an 0-4 record, they briefly willed themselves out of the stank bayou of sub.500'dom until, alas, the Panthers gave them a reality check in week 17 to end their season at 7-9. The Bucs followed a different path under their new coach, Rock 'em Sock 'em Schiano, or as the Giants offensive line know him "Captain Kneebuster". They started off hot with a 6-4 record including two wins against the Panthers. It seemed the OT win against the Panthers took everything out of this upstart team though as they lost the next 5 games straight, including a 41-0 shutout courtesy of the Saints. Mon dieu! They finished on a somewhat high note, defeating the Falcons who wrapped up a first round bye and home field advantage throughout the week before in Detroit. That meant a 3-way tie for second place in the division with three teams at 7-9. Finally the Falcons. This past season may have been their greatest ever. Starting off 8-0 it seemed there was no stopping them. With an aerial attack and weapons that would make Kurt Warner circa 2001 jealous, this team seemed poised to finally get over the hump, and they did! Finally Melty Ice and the coach Falcons fans call Smitty (gag) won their first playoff game! Do you know what was on the other side of that hump? ANOTHER DAMN HUMP! The Falcons ultimately lost in the NFC Championship game. Which brings us to this moment, right here.
What now? Well, the three way tie led to a cluster of NFC South picks in the middle of the first round. The Bucs (13), Panthers (14) and Saints (15) will weigh options of trading back as these spots are somewhere between "can't miss" and "solid starter" while the Falcons actually have a first round pick, remember they gave up last years for Quintorris Lopez "Julio" Jones. What? That's his name. The Falcons are buried at 30, their consolation prize for an "almost" season. Do they trade up? We know they're not against it if a sure fire prospect is waiting in the wings. I think the only safe bet is that none of these teams will spend a high pick on a QB or a K.
There are going to be some farewells to be had in the offseason as well. Since Marty Hurney had about as much fiscal responsibility as a crackhead with a $20 bill the Panthers find themselves tapped out and then some. We potentially could see any number of players shown the door including, but not limited to Chris Gamble, Jon Beason, James Anderson, Dwan Edwards, Jordan Gross, DeAngelo Williams and a few lesser known contributors. Sigh. Well, we're not the only team that may lose a weapon or two.
The ageless Tony Gonzales has all but made his retirement announcement.That's one man I won't be sad to see fumbling and bumbling through a sports segment audition in the coming months. That's what you do when you retire from football, right? I remember when John Abraham used to make me cringe. Going into his 14th year he's lost more than a step and may be a casualty. There are rumors that Tyson Clabo needs to restructure to stay. Michael Turner is on the chopping block as well and Dunta Robinson doesn't appear to be safe either. Room has to be made for emerging stars and it seems the older Dirty Birds may be set free.
The Bucs FA list looks like a list of "has beens" and "never weres". Ronder Barber may or may not be getting dribbled down the field by Jonathan Stewart in year 17 while Dallas Clark and Jeremy Trueblood will likely be allowed to walk. I don't see much decline in talent for this group. In fact, I see a team on the upswing and their fans need to see it too. How about selling out a game there Tampa?
And finally the Saints. Man I can't stand the Saints. I can't stand reading about the Saints. In fact, I really don't care enough about this group of rule breakers and thugs to research their FA situation. Blah, blah, blah Breesus, blah blah boo dat, blah derp.
And finally welcome back Sean Payton! After a year in
rehab for Vicodin addiction suspension, Payton returns to pick up where he left off. The Saints also fired Spags for fielding statistically the worst defense in the history of the National Football League. So how do you make a soap opera villain of a franchise even more of a laughing stock? Enter Rob Ryan. It's not confirmed yet but all rumors point to Ryan being the DC in New Orleans next year. Talk swirled after the loss in the NFC Championship of the Falcons canning Mike Smith but it turned out to be just that, talk. I don't know how much longer he'll be safe with that level of talent falling flat when they're needed most. But hey, he's miles ahead of Bobby Petrino.
So what happens in 2013? Well, the season opener is quite a ways away. Teams will change drastically and insane predictions will be had by all. In the NFC South four fanbases will strongly believe their team wins the division and beyond. With the talent level and history of the division I can't really say I blame any of us. Unfortunately for three of them it will not come to pass. One thing will remain constant though. This division is the most talented in the NFL. 70% of the time the NFC road to the Super Bowl passes through the South. I just hope this year that road is South Mint Street.