The NFL Draft is almost here but the recent release of the NFL schedules will be more important to the success or failure of any NFL team. The schedules are not created equally and with just 16 games there can be great disparities between the various paths to the playoffs. Here is a look at the NFC South and the upcoming schedule for each team.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons had an up-and-down 10-6 season last year, finishing second in the South division but failing in both games with the Saints. Atlanta again struggled in the postseason with an ugly 24-2 first round exit against the eventual Super Bowl champions. Atlanta was 6-2 at home last season and they will only face two home games against teams with a winning 2011 record in the 2012 season. The season starts out with favorable opportunities as the Falcons will play a team with a either a new coach or a new starting QB in four of the first six weeks of the season which should propel the Falcons to a strong start.
Atlanta won't play a team that had a winning 2011 record until week 10 and they only have four games all year against such teams. Atlanta does not have back-to-back road games all season long as they perfectly alternate road and home games through the course of the season. With the Saints potentially in disarray this season the Falcons will be in the best position to take advantage and claim this division and potentially emerge as one of the top seeds in the NFC.
The South division will face games with the NFC East teams and the AFC West teams which has to be considered a favorable draw considering that only one of those eight teams had a winning record last season. The second place schedule brings a late season Saturday game at Detroit as well as a home game with Arizona in week 11. Atlanta faces a tough late season schedule with the Saints, Panthers, Giants, and Lions in four consecutive weeks but overall Atlanta has to feel good about the 2012 slate and this should again be a playoff contender and a team that could be in the mix for a top seed in the NFC.
Carolina Panthers: Carolina was just 6-10 last season but it was as impressive as 6-10 could be. The Panthers were only outscored by 23 points on the season and rookie QB Cam Newton looks like he will be a force in the league for many years to come. This division might be wide open with the Saints juggling suspensions and the Falcons aging but Carolina may be too quickly being placed in contender status. Carolina has a difficult opening to the season so they will need to weather the early storm and this is a team that still has questions on defense. Home games with the Saints and Giants line up in weeks 2 and 3 and games at Atlanta and at Chicago are also in the first half of the season so the Panthers will know whether or not they can take the next step early in the year.
The Panthers draw Seattle and Chicago in the third place schedule but the biggest issue for the Panthers will be a difficult home schedule. Only two games among the eight home games will be against teams that had losing records last season. Carolina was just 3-5 at home last season and Charlotte has not often been considered a difficult place to play like the other venues in the division often are. While Atlanta and New Orleans get to catch several of the teams in transition on the schedule early in the year, the Panthers have many of those games late in the year when things may be more stable for those franchises which could be a disadvantage.
Carolina will again be an exciting team to watch this season and progress should be made in 2012 but the expectations need to be grounded. Improving to 8-8 would be a big step forward and a reasonable goal for a team that was at the bottom of the league in 2010. Carolina was able to surprise several teams last year with its passing offense, as this had been a run-first team for so many years and with opponents having film and better preparation for Newton there may be a small step back in the numbers. The elevated expectations and a somewhat tricky schedule relative to the rest of the division could ground some of the high hopes for Carolina.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints have been in the headlines a lot this spring for a lot of negative reasons and it is hard to say what will happen with all the suspensions and investigations looming. Head Coach Sean Payton will not be there this year and there could be disarray especially early in the year as the team works with a shortened staff and potentially missing a few players. Fortunately for the Saints the schedule starts out favorably. New Orleans draws 2011 losing teams in the first three games of the season including the first two games going against teams in fairly significant transitions. Big games are lined up in weeks 4 and 5 but by then New Orleans could be in better shape.
The Saints are the only team in the division that has to play the Packers and the 49ers so New Orleans was going to be at a disadvantage this season anyway in their goal of repeating as South division champions. Having those two games could easily be the difference in winning this division as Atlanta appears to have a much more favorable schedule and in the ten years of existence for the NFC South, there has never been a repeat champion. New Orleans was 13-3 last season and one of just three teams that was 8-0 at home last season and the Saints only have two home games against 2011 playoff teams so this is still a dangerous team.
The road schedule for the Saints is challenging however especially late in the season with road games at Atlanta and at New York in back-to-back weeks as well as road games at Dallas and a long trip to Oakland. With all the potential distractions and transition issues with the staff expecting a decline in record for New Orleans is logical and with this schedule it looks reasonable to expect a worse record by a few games. The Saints certainly can score some points and be a playoff team but Atlanta probably deserves to be the favorite in the division based on the schedules.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: There is not much margin of error in the NFL and after Tampa Bay had a 10-6 season in 2010, a season where they clearly caught some breaks in close wins and in the schedule, the staff was cleared out as the team dropped to 4-12 last season. Tampa Bay had the second worst point differential in the NFL last season at -207 but this was also a team that clearly gave up, going 0-10 after a 4-2 start with the negativity building. This is a team that had early season wins over both Atlanta and New Orleans and also had close losses with Detroit, Chicago, and Green Bay before the wheels fell off so there are not empty shelves remaining for the new staff.
There are many questions with what direction Tampa Bay goes in with new head coach Greg Schiano bolting to the NFL from Rutgers. The Buccaneers can address some needs in the draft and Tampa Bay has been very active in pursuing free agents already this spring. Tampa Bay could certainly be a team that has a relatively quick turnaround as the talent on the team was better than the 4-12 record as it was clear that former coach Raheem Morris lost the team at some point and there was not great leadership in the locker room. Tampa Bay opens the season with a critical game against Carolina and weeks 2 and 3 present difficult games at New York and at Dallas. Tampa Bay has three home games and a bye week in weeks 4 through 7 and that will be a key stretch to determine the trajectory of the season after what could be a tough start to the season.
The late season slate is challenging with the road visits to New Orleans and Atlanta both in the final three weeks of the season. Tampa Bay also has to face Denver, St. Louis, and Oakland late in the year when those teams that are in transition could be playing their better ball. Tampa Bay does get games with Minnesota and St. Louis, teams that had horrible results last season so that is a big advantage over say the Saints getting Green Bay and San Francisco in those match-ups. Tampa Bay will probably start out slowly and may not have the ability to win the big late season games against playoff contenders but in the middle of the year there should be opportunities for this team and improvement is possible through this slate.