With the first half of the NFL season over, here is a look at how each NFC South team performed with respect to preseason expectations:
New Orleans Saints (8-0): A+
In the NFL, it is unheard-of to average 38 points per game. Even the 2007 Patriots, who obliterated their opponents en route to a 16-0 regular-season record, managed “only” 36.8 points per game. The difference between this year’s version of the Saints and those of previous years is that the Saints have dramatically improved their defense to complement their high-flying offense. Also, in addition to Drew Brees and the passing game, Pierre Thomas and the stable of Saints running backs have anchored the fifth ranked rushing team in the NFL. This versatility on offense, combined with the improved defense has helped lead the Saints to an 8-0 record, and has fans thinking of New Orleans competing in a Super Bowl, instead of just hosting it (note: the Super Bowl is in Miami this year).
Atlanta Falcons (5-3): B
After making the playoffs last season, fans in Atlanta were hoping for a slightly better start to the 2009 campaign, but overall the Falcons remain in good position in the NFC, despite their three losses. Neither the offense nor the defense has played particular well this season, but the Falcons still remain a dangerous team. In addition to Roddy White, Matt Ryan has a new weapon in tight end Tony Gonzales. The two targets have combined for 78 catches at the halfway point of the season, and have spread the defense enough to allow running back Michael Turner to average 4.6 yards each time he carries the ball. Even with three losses, the Falcons have a relatively weak schedule in the second half of the season. Look for them to go 10-6 or 11-5, and secure a wild card spot come January.
Carolina Panthers (3-5): D
Coming off a 12 win season in 2008, the Panthers have been one of the bigger disappointments in 2009. With one of the most talented backfields in the NFL, featuring DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, the Panthers have no problems moving the ball on the ground. Unfortunately for Panthers fans, it has been a nightmare season for quarterback Jake Delhomme. With a 5:13 touchdown to interception ratio, and a rating of 61.7, Delhomme has been among the NFL worst this season, which has derailed any hopes at a playoff berth in 2009. If the Panthers have any hope at resurrecting their season, they will have rely on the defense to play as well as it did in the first half of the season, while getting better production in the passing game. Looking at the schedule, the Panthers have a grueling second half of the season, including games against Atlanta, New England, Minnesota, New York (Giants), and New Orleans. In order for the Panthers to have any shot at the playoffs, they will need to win at least two of these matchups in addition to their other remaining games against Miami, New York (Jets), and Tampa Bay. Look for the Panthers to struggle down the stretch, with a best case scenario probably being a 7-9 finish.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-7): C-
With a rookie head coach and no experienced quarterback beyond Byron Leftwich, the Buccaneers knew from the beginning that 2009 would be a rebuilding year. At times, the team has shown flashes of talent, but it is far too raw to put together 60-minute games on a consistent basis. In the Bucs’ first win of the season, a surprising victory over Green Bay, Josh Freeman made his NFL starting debut. Freeman, a talented rookie out of Kansas State, has the size and talent to be a successful NFL quarterback. With playoff hopes out of reach in 2009, the Buccaneers will be looking to get Freeman as much experience as possible, so they will be contenders in 2010. It may take more time than that, as the defense needs to improve drastically, but at least there is hope in Tampa Bay. At this point in the season, Buccaneers fans should be looking for improvement as the season wears on, and not at wins and losses. There probably won’t be too many more wins this season.