Drew Brees (REUTERS photo by Sean Gardner)
1. New Orleans Saints (12-4) (Division Champions):
Yeah, they put out bounties on other players. Yeah, linebacker Jonathan Vilma is most likely out for the season. Yeah, Head Coach – Sean Payton is out for the season. Yeah, even Defensive Coordinator – Joe Vitt has to sit out the first six games. In case you’re wondering (because I just was), Offensive Line Coach – Aaron Kromer will coach the Saints for the first six games of 2012.
But amidst the dust of The Bounty Scandal, one Saint emerges as vividly as white smoke from the Sistene Chapel. (Yeah, I’ll be at The Vatican a week from today.) QB Drew Brees is playing the best football in the NFL. He threw for over 5,400 yards in 2011 – an NFL record. And like in the darkest Sumatran coffee they can make in the Starbucks clover machine on a Monday morning, the cream always rises to the top. Drew Brees is the lead conductor of a highly-synchronized Scoring Symphony in New Orleans. And whatever level of defensive precision and strategy (49ers?, Packers?, Giants?, Bears?) that is necessary to stop this harmony does not exist in the NFC South.
The big games for the defending NFC South Champs:
9/16: at Carolina (Always fun when the Best of the Present (Brees) collides with
the Best of the Future (Cam Newton)
9/30: at Green Bay (These 2 kicked off the 2011 season in a thriller – the Packers stuffed
the Saints on the goalline as time expired.)
10/28: at Denver (NBC Sunday Night Football) (Brees vs. Peyton Manning. Jen, don’t
make any plans for us that night!)
12/9: at the Giants (Who’s the best in the NFC? The winner of this game might give us a
2. Atlanta Falcons (8-8):
The Falcons open their 2012 season with 3 straight interconference games against the AFC West (the last division to be projected by ErnBlog over the next few days). Fifth QB Matt Ryan (from Boston College) and fifth year Head Coach Mike Smith have led Atlanta to the postseason in 3 of their first 4 seasons together. The past two playoff appearances have produced disappointing results for Falcon fans – both embarrassing losses to the eventual Super Bowl Champions.
It appears that the Carolina Panthers may have closed the gap on Atlanta in 2012. With the powerful Saints also in the division, the Falcons are projected to only go 3-3 in the South. With a difficult remaining schedule including games against the Giants and Detroit, ErnBlog sees the Falcons taking 2 steps back from 10-6 in 2011.
3. Carolina Panthers (8-8):
While ErnBlog sees Atlanta taking 2 steps back, it projects the Carolina Panthers to leap 2 steps forward in the NFC South. Second-year QB Cam Newton is a versatile weapon on offense, blessed with both a powerful arm and the ability to run. Head Coach – Ron Rivera (a defensive specialist) will have a second go around in Charlotte and ErnBlog predicts a productive journey for the Panthers in 2012.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12):
Rookie Head Coach – Greg Schiano left a cushy situation at Rutgers University (which, despite its private-sounding name, is the New Jersey state university, by the way) to head south to the Gulf Coast to save a sinking Pirate Ship. Owner Malcolm Glazer (also owner of a British soccer squad you may have heard of – Manchester United) showed thin patience for previous Head Coach – Raheem Morris (at one point, the youngest head coach in the league). Despite a promising 10-6 non-Playoff-qualifying finish in 2010, the Bucs fell back to Earth, and to 4-12 in 2011. That’s when Glazer pulled the plug on Morris and summoned the proven college resume of Schiano.
QB Josh Freeman, who ran for his life for much of 2011, needs protection from the Buccaneers offensive line. Unfortunately for Gulf Coast NFL fans, Schiano will need a season to rebuild and redesign a disorganized situation in Tampa. The ending result in 2012 should be more of the same.