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NFC South Outlook

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NFC East · NFC North · NFC South · NFC West
The Tight Race Everyone Is Ignoring
 
The NFC South futures market represents opportunity. For Matt Ryan and the Falcons it’s a chance for their high risk front office to prove that all the moves they’ve made for a Super Bowl run were the right ones. The 2013 is also a chance for divisional stars like Josh Freeman, Drew Brees and Cam Newton to prove what they’re worth. Even more so, it’s a chance for Sean Payton to prove that he’s one of the best head coaches in football while Greg Schiano and Ron Rivera attempt to prove that they deserve their jobs.
 
It’s easy to be optimistic about any team in this division. One team’s the best, another is a recent Super Bowl Champion, one has a super hero at quarterback and the longshot in the group has made some of the biggest free agent splashes over the past two seasons. But in a 2013 which will forge the mindsets of the franchises moving forward, which team is the best in the bunch?
 
Atlanta Falcons (2012: 13-3 SU, 9-6-1 ATS)
Odds To Win NFC South: +170
NFC Championship: +1100
Regular Season Wins:  10.0 Games
 
The Falcons continue to be the model for “win now” in the NFC South futures after extending Matt Ryan another five years, signing Steven Jackson and cruising on with the Julio Jones deal. All of these contracts have – and will continue to – create positive dividends for the Falcons, but is it enough to win the conference?
 
I say no. Ryan is a great quarterback, but he’s falling under the “Tony Romo” umbrella with just one playoff win on his resume. He is surrounded by ungodly talent, and Jackson will finally give them a reliable power back that can do more than Michael Turner (who remains unsigned). As far as being a favorite in the division, I’m sold. On paper they’re the best team out there and regardless of Ryan’s post season record, they’re an incredible regular season performer.
 
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The OVER on their regular season wins and their odds to win the NFC South futures are all inviting plays and you wouldn’t be idiotic to back them now. Every team in this division is a threat (I’m not kidding) but Atlanta has been a proven commodity for the past three years by going 36-12 SU over the past three years. The Saints are an up-and-down franchise that is crumbling apart at the edges, and everyone is waiting for Tampa to take that step forward that they never end up taking. So when it comes to reliability, Atlanta is the only team worth considering.
 
That doesn’t mean I love them to win the division, they’re just the team that seems poised to replicate their recent successes. You can’t ignore production and while Atlanta might not be a world beater in the post season, they continue to hold the best value on this board.
 
After the regular season, however, I have zero faith in Atlanta. Z-E-R-O. They’re the inverse Ravens: every year they get to the playoffs and every year they fail to advance to a reasonable stopping point. So take their odds to win the NFC Championship with a grain of salt.
 
New Orleans Saints (2012: 7-9 SU, 8-8 ATS)
Odds To Win NFC South: +200
NFC Championship: +1100
Regular Season Wins:  9.5 Games
 
Sean Payton is back, and if there was such a thing as a WAR stat for coaches, then Payton deserves a rating of +3.5 games. He is one of the league’s best motivators and justified his bloated salary through his absence last season when he was suspended after Bounty Gate happened under his nose. Payton’s return makes the Saints a reasonable NFC Championship bet, but there are some cracks in the armor that make them a bit cautionary.
 
The first of which is the defense, which was run all over last season for the most yards in the league. They surrendered 7,042 total last year, which is nearly nine-hundred more than the second-to-last place Giants. Will Smith and Darren Harper are big name talents, but they also have massive contracts which make it hard for the Saints to improve overall. When you have the field devouring Falcons, the heroic Cam Newton and a better-than-you-think Bucs team (more on them in a second) in the same division, the Saints are in for a long season.
 
Which is why I can’t ultimately encourage them long term. Couple that with the glaring fact that the Saints are eerily thin at receiver and you have even more reasons to worry about this play. Lance Moore thrived as a number-five option in a five receiver set, but he’s now the legitimate number-two on the depth chart. The Saints are responsible for teams handing out mega deals to guys like Robert Meachem which don’t pan out because their system produced gaudy numbers offensively. Their system can’t be replicated unless somebody figures out how to clone Drew Brees.
 
But gone are guys like Meachem and Chris Ivory, which added depth to an exhausting amount of plays that the offense ran in 2012. I like the Saints in the NFC South futures, but I like the Falcons and Bucs way more. That doesn’t mean I’m disregarding Payton’s impact…it just means I don’t think that the Saints are as amazing as everyone else seems to.
 
Carolina Panthers (2012: 7-9 SU, 9-7 ATS)
Odds To Win NFC South: +350
NFC Championship: +2000
Regular Season Wins:  7.5 Games
 
The Panthers are the third favorite to win this division? Wow, the oddsmakers must hate Tampa Bay while simultaneously loving Cam Newton. Granted, the former Auburn star is a stud in the NFL but he’s not surrounded by great talent. The team still hasn’t added a reasonable second-threat in the passing game to play opposite Steve Smith, and the injuries on the defensive side may creep up again.
 
Obviously, the oddsmakers like Carolina a lot more than I do. They’re not necessarily a one dimensional team, but they’re awfully simple. That’s what happens when you don’t have enough talent on the roster. The Panthers will struggle in divisional matchups after doing fairly well in 2012. Last year, they went 3-3 SU against the division (beating New Orleans twice and Atlanta once) and these are all games that they’re going to have a lot more trouble with in 2013. New Orleans will be better and Atlanta won’t have easily forgotten allowing 58 points to Newton in two games last season.
 
I know that what I just wrote seems like reasons be positive for Carolina’s chances in the NFC South futures, but I don’t see how they get any better. Evolving every year is imperative to maintaining or building success in the league and it’s difficult to imagine what Carolina can do differently than last year with virtually identical personnel. The Panthers are a fun upstart to back depending on the matchup, but I think they’re due for a 6-10 SU season and they’re impossible to back over the long haul of the season in the NFC South Futures or the NFC Championship market.
 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012: 7-9 SU, 10-5-1 ATS)
Odds To Win NFC South: +500
NFC Championship: +2000
Regular Season Wins:  7.5 Games
 
Proof that the oddsmakers don’t believe in Josh Freeman is right there in the NFC South futures where Tampa brings up the rear as 5-to-1 longshots behind even Carolina. Wait…what? This is the team that has breakout rookie Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, Darrelle Revis and three Pro Bowl players on the offensive line right? Ok, it is. Just checking.
 
Those underdog odds are a direct reflection of what the wizards who create odds for the gambling community think of Josh Freeman, the incumbent quarterback who is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Freeman’s fall from grace has been well documented at Grantland by the always great Bill Barnwell, who wrote that “nobody has more riding on 2013 than Freeman” from a financial standpoint. Freeman could be looking at franchise quarterback numbers if he plays like the player we saw in the first half of last year, and not the player who dragged Tampa in to hell while spearheading a 2-4 SU record to end the season that dropped Tampa out of the playoff hunt.
 
In 2012, there were lots of teams that struggled along the offensive line and stumbled overall as a team. Detroit, Philadelphia and Chicago are three NFC teams that suffered the same fate as Tampa, which lost Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph last year hurting the interior that builds the pocket around Freeman. Left tackle Donald Penn is one of the best players nobody ever talks about (mostly because the league is flooded with awesome offensive tackles these days) and that collection of talent up front could very well make Freeman a better quarterback if all the significant pass protectors stay on the field this year.
 
So let’s give Freeman the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say he’s an above average quarterback who didn’t end the season with 10 interceptions compared to 6 touchdowns over the last 5 games of the season. Or, let’s say that Mike Glennon – who was drafted in the third round of this year’s draft – is decent enough to take over. Just bear with me for a second.
 
In other words: look at this freaking roster. With a capable quarterback who doesn’t freeze like a deer in the headlights, Tampa is loaded offensively. Jackson is a breakaway receiver who gets open more often than he doesn’t and Mike Williams is a terrific second option. You can’t undersell how good Martin is, and how much better he’ll be with an improved (i.e. healthy) offensive line in front of him. I love the Hillis addition too, especially as it pertains to keeping Martin healthy and out of traffic near the goal line.
 
Freeman is not the best quarterback under pressure, but should the offensive line stay healthier next season, he’ll be able to work his magic throughout the year. And that makes Tampa a dangerous threat in the NFC South futures and the conference overall. It’s easy to write things like “Josh Freeman can’t play under pressure” or “Matt Ryan can’t win in the playoffs” but eventually a player either evolves or becomes a known commodity. I think Freeman (and Ryan for that matter) can both do away with labels that are stinking up their reputation.
 
The defense is where Tampa has always crumbled and trading their first rounder this year to get the best corner in the game is a huge upgrade that can’t be undersold. Revis makes one of the weakest secondaries in the league much better and will be a massive boost when trying to defuse Drew Brees (against whom Revis can roam freely) or Matt Ryan (against whom the former Jets standout can attempt to stop Julio Jones) or Cam Newton (seeing Revis and Steve Smith lock horns twice a year is going to be like watching robots and monsters from Pacific Rim smashing each other).
 
The addition of starting safety Dashon Goldson is a curious one because on paper. Goldson is one of the best in the league. But is he a product of the Niners or a stud all by himself in a vaccum? With Revis and Mark Barron flanking him, we may never find out which is my nice/backhanded way of suggesting that Goldson will do just fine in Tampa.
 
The Bucs are also strong upfront, where their pass rush and run defense will be tested throughout the year. Strangely enough, Tampa ranked first in rush defense with just 82.5 yards allowed on the ground which sounds shocking, but that is a byproduct of their horrifyingly bad secondary from 2012. If you think that Tampa ranking first in rush defense and dead last in pass defense is any coincidence, you’re not connecting the dots. Tampa can still be beat up in the trenches on defense because their starters are all a bit undersized, but they have sturdy and ferocious linebackers that fill the gaps well and rarely missed tackles last season.
 
If Freeman steps up and plays more consistently – and with proper protection the chances are high – nobody represents more upset value in the NFC than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Falcons are not infallible and the Saints are not unbeatable, especially as their defense gets worse. At 5-to-1 in the NFC South futures market, and with an astoundingly good value in the NFC Championship futures for a fun flier play, Tampa could very well be the best underdog play out there.
 
As long as you believe in Freeman.

  
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