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Nick Ferraro

NFL Preview ~ NFL South

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By Senior Columnist
Nick Ferraro

Our NFL preview continues as we storm through the NFL South. The South will provide this year’s rags-to-riches story. Will Manning finally get by the Pats? Will he get out of an improving AFC South?

NFC South
Division Rank: 6th
Last Season:
Atlanta 11-5
New Orleans 7-9
Carolina 7-9
Tampa Bay 5-11

2005 Projection:
Tampa Bay 11-5
Atlanta 10-6
Carolina 8-8
New Orleans 7-9

The NFC South will provide the NFL with its latest worst-to-first story as the Bucs turn it around to edge the Falcons. The division will send two teams to the playoffs with all four having a chance until late season. The Panthers will struggle to score and the Saints are headed for a major shakeup.

Atlanta Falcons

Off-season: B-
The Falcons made some nice free-agent pickups. Edgerton Hartwell will be a solid addition. There will be a drop off at kicker as Todd Peterson replaces Jay Feeley. The draft was solid but not spectacular. The Falcons hope 1st-rounder Roddy White provides a needed threat at wideout.

The season will go well if….
The Falcons can produce through the passing game. The Falcons were the best on the ground and 30th in the passing game last year. They have to have better balance this year.

The season will go poorly if…
The turnovers continue on offense. The Falcons giveth, and the Falcons taketh away last year. They ranked 10th in takeaways with 32, but 22nd in turnovers with 30.

Key Game
NEW ORLEANS –December 12th
The Saints started the Falcons on a 1-3 run to end the season last year including the playoff loss the Eagles. This year the Falcons have the Saints at home in December in a prime-time event. The Saints game will go along way toward determining the Falcons fate as they finish with four of their last five against division foes.

Bottom Line:
The Falcons still need more big plays from the passing game than they appear ready to produce. The defense and ground game will carry them to a double-digit win total, but the season will end before the Dirty Birds would like.

Carolina Panthers

Off-season: B
The Panthers lost an impact player in Muhsin Muhammad. A healthy Steve Smith and free agent Rod Gardner will help make up for the loss. They added talent as well with guard Mike Wahle and DBs Idrees Bashir and Ken Lucas. 1st rounder Thomas Davis will be a major force on defense.

The season will go well if….
Muhammad’s production can be replaced. Smith needs to be healthy for the Panthers to compete for the division. The defense can be dominant if they’re not on the field all game long.

The season will go poorly if…
The running game again struggles below 100 yards per game. Someone needs to stay healthy at RB, and the OL has to open some holes.

Key Game
NEW ORLEANS – September 11th
The Panthers won only three home games last year. They figure to be 0-2 to open the season if they drop the opener to New Orleans. The champs come to town in week two.

Bottom Line:
Keary Colbert produced about half the catches and yards that Muhsin Muhammad posted last year and less than one third of the TDs. Rod Gardner is not Muhammad. The RBs can’t stay healthy, and the TE position should be dreadful again. 8-8 is all this offense can promise.

New Orleans Saints

Off-season: B-
The enigmatic Saints were active in preseason and were able to add contributors though there are no standouts. We like Jammal Brown and the reach for Adrian McPherson may payoff handsomely if he stays away from Bourbon Street. The last-ranked defense did not get enough of a makeover.

The season will go well if….
Deuce McAllister can manage more than the 1,074 yards he tallied last season. The Saints have to manage the clock with the running game. It would help if the free-agent additions can lift the defense to the middle of the pack.

The season will go poorly if…
Aaron Brooks continues to regress. It seemed Brooks was ready to move into the league’s elite before he took a major step backward last year. Both he and coach Haslett will be on the hot seat this year.

Key Game
TAMPA BAY – December 12th
The Buc game lands in the middle of a brutal stretch where the Saints are on the road against New England, the Jets, and the Falcons. If they drop their only home game, they can count on an 0-4 run to start the stretch drive.

Bottom Line:
The Saints still need a couple defensive playmakers before they can be considered playoff possibilities. They closed the season strong last year, but they’ll finish a shade under .500 this time around.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Off-season: A
The Bucs had a great draft. Carnell Williams should help immediately and Alex Smith was a steal in the 3rd. We like Dan Buenning and Anthony Bryant to contribute as well. Free agent Joey Galloway will stretch the field and be a nice complement to rising star, Michael Clayton.

The season will go well if….
Williams can pick up the running game. The Bucs were 29th in rushing last year. Though Griese has found a home with Gruden’s offense, he can’t carry the team alone.

The season will go poorly if…
The team doesn’t reverse the turnover trend. The Bucs were minus eight last season. That’s hard to imagine after watching their Super Bowl team of a few years ago. The turnover margin will be key if the want to return to playoff form.

Key Game
At Atlanta – November 20th
The Bucs will need to show something to the reigning division champs if they are serious about contending. The Falcon game is the first game in a stretch that will see the Bucs play 4 of 5 on the road.

Bottom Line:
The Bucs will be the major mover in the South. Gruden has the pieces in place to make the offense go, and the defense can still play. The schedule is favorable, and it will allow the Bucs to be this year’s comeback story.

AFC South
Division Rank: 4th
Last Season:
Indy 12-4
Jacksonville 9-7
Houston 7-9
Tennessee 5-11

2005 Projection:
Indy 12-4
Jacksonville 11-5
Houston 7-9
Tennessee 3-13

There will be a fight for the top spot in the AFC South this season. The Jags are in position to make a major run at the Colts. Houston will again hover around the .500 mark while Tennessee is in major rebuilding mode.

Houston Texans

Off-season: C-
It was a quiet off-season for the Texans. It was too quiet for a team hoping to improve in a tough division. Jamie Sharper will be missed. Travis Johnson was a safe pick, and Jerome Mathis can make plays.

The season will go well if….
The team continues to mature. There were no major acquisitions, so improvement from last year’s 7-9 mark will depend on the young players getting better.

The season will go poorly if…
The Texans can’t find the end zone with the passing game. Andre Johnson led the team with only six TDs last year through the air.

Key Game
INDIANAPOLIS – October 23rd
The Texans won both against the Jags last year, but dropped both against the Colts. They were able to hold Manning and company to a respectable 23 at home last season, and a split would be a major achievement for the Texans.

Bottom Line:
The changes, or lack thereof, don’t add up to significant improvement. They’ll again be competitive, but the Texans are still a step or two behind the Colts and Jags.

Indianapolis Colts

Off-season: C
The Colts were a non-factor in free agency, but they had a solid draft. They used their first four picks to address the defense. The team needs Marlon Jackson and Kelvin Hayden to help the 28th ranked pass defense.

The season will go well if….
The rookies can lift the defense into the middle of the pack. That’s all the team would need to get over the hump.

The season will go poorly if…
Anything happens to Manning. Barring that, the Colts will contend again for the AFC crown.

Key Game
at New England –November 7th
The Colts have to prove something to themselves and the rest of the world. A win in New England would do that and might mean a third straight playoff meeting with the Pats would be in Indianapolis for a change.

Bottom Line:
The Colts may have been the second best team in the NFL the last two years. Nobody cares. The competition in the AFC East may mean the Colts finally get home field. That would put them into the big game in January.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Off-season: B+
The Jags did well in free agency adding Reggie Heyward and Tony Williams on the defensive line. Williams will need to bounce back from injury. They did well on draft day as well. We like Matt Jones and Khalif Barnes will be a solid player on the OL.

The season will go well if….
Reggie Williams or Jones can produce in the passing game. The Jags have to do better than the 17.5 points they averaged last year. Jimmy Smith led the team with only 6 TDs receiving.

The season will go poorly if…
Jimmy Smith loses a step. He is still the go-to guy for Leftwich. The team also needs to find a productive TE.

Key Game
INDIANAPOLIS – December 11th
The Colts game follows three straight on the road. The last three are very winnable with the 49ers and Titans coming to town and a trip to Houston in the middle. The Colts game is the only game against a 2004 playoff team in the last nine weeks of the season.

Bottom Line:
The Jags will make some noise if they can navigate through the first seven weeks of the schedule. The offense will struggle again to put enough points on the board, but the Jags will play into January.

Tennessee Titans

Off-season: F
You could build a decent team with the players the Titans let go this off-season. The draft was good, but the team had no chance of filling its many holes.

The season will go well if….
The Titans can develop a running game that keeps their defense off the field.

The season will go poorly if…
There is no improvement on the 27.4 points per game they allowed in 2004.

Key Game
at St. Louis – September 25th
The Ram game is the only winnable game for the Titans in the first four weeks. If they can’t manage an upset, the season will be over before it starts.

Bottom Line:
This is going to be ugly. The Titans window of opportunity closed with a resounding thud, and there is no reason to think it will open again any time soon.

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