NFC South preview- CBS Sportsline
NFC South preview: Close, but talk must start with Bucs Sept. 1, 2003
By Jay Glazer
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
Tell Jay your opinion!
(Sixth in a series of previews leading up to the season opener.)
TAMPA -- Picking the NFC South could more difficult than hacking into the White House computers. The NFL's toughest division boasts the defending champs, the NFL's most exciting player in Michael Vick, the league's best up-and-coming defense and perhaps the best set of five offensive weapons in the NFL.
Jon Gruden has to keep Warren Sapp and the defending champion Bucs humble. (AP)
And they want to pick a winner out of this bunch?
"The records in the division may not end up being indicative of how good teams are because we have to play each other twice a year," Panthers head coach John Fox said. "There are some good games in this division."
The leader of the pack has to be the defending Super Bowl champs. Normally when a team wins a Super Bowl, their follow-up year is shrouded by huge egos, each player believing he is the primary reason for the team's success. The Buccaneers players are not exempt from this thinking, but unlike with other teams, it might actually add to their luster.
"You won't see that get in the way here because we have too many guys who compete against each other here," wideout Keyshawn Johnson said. "We have too much pride to let each other down. We all want to outdo each other."
The Bucs return the crux of their offensive starters from a year ago but have added former first-round running back Thomas Jones. Although Michael Pittman has been running with the first team, Bucs players have been unable to contain their excitement with Jones' potential.
Sept. 3 NFC West
Defensively ... look out! The team lost under-appreciated linebacker Al Singleton and replaced him with the athletic Dwayne Rudd. They also lost Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson and replaced him with Dwight Smith. Neither loss was big enough to make a dent in the Bucs' unblemished armor.
"Teams in our division have definitely gotten better," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "They've improved through free agency, but we're still hungry because we can't imagine finishing another season without winning the Super Bowl."
How does one not pick this team again? In this oh-so-difficult division, there are three other reasons why they might not repeat.
The only question the Falcons need to ask is ... when? When will Michael Vick return? When will he be healthy enough to be the Michael Vick they need? When will he be able to run like, well, Michael Vick?
Before he broke his leg, Vick and teammates could have been the team to beat in the division. Nonsense you say? Look at the pieces. The Falcons possess one of the NFL's most underrated defensive units, a 3-4 that now has an extra year under guru Wade Phillips.
Running back Warrick Dunn was one of the league's best backfield weapons in the team's final 10 games last year. In fact, he had 100-plus yards of offense in eight of the team's final 12 games including the postseason.
T.J. Duckett gives them a true thunder-and-lightning presence. Throw in Peerless Price, solid wideout and Vick favorite Brian Finneran and red-zone target Alge Crumpler, and the Falcons have a well-rounded attack.
OK, now throw in Vick, the Barry Sanders of the quarterback position, and the Falcons become a "pick your poison" squad. Even if Vick doesn't return quickly, Atlanta could be decent with free-agent-to-be Doug Johnson. But considering how tough the division is, Atlanta needs to hope they can hold on for Vick to return before it's too late.
Two years into the John Fox Era, opponents have something to fear when they hit the Charlotte area. Actually, they have seven things to fear. Fox's front seven on defense has become one of the most feared groups in the league. The defensive line, led by sophomore sensation Julius Peppers, might be the best and is sure to give a quarterback or two some nightmares.
Their secondary is still suspect, but with the pass rush the Panthers will put forth, even marginal defensive backs should appear much better than they actually are.
The Panthers finished 7-9 last season but could have easily converted that into 10 victories if not for a string of last-minute collapses. Despite being just one year removed from possessing one of the worst records in league history, Carolina could actually be a serious playoff contender.
The key? Don't let the offense waste whatever masterpiece the defense creates.
Carolina still is in some flux at quarterback, but they signed the tough former Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis to provide some ground and pound. Second-year man DeShaun Foster actually hit the playing field this week for the first time since injuring his knee early last year. If Foster can return to full speed and stay healthy, Carolina has a heck of a 1-2 backfield punch.
The kicker position last season was a mess, but the Panthers finished the preseason with two kickers they love in Shayne Graham and John Kasay, healthy again. If they can get some stability at this position and the Panthers offense can give just enough push to the defense, Carolina could be a surprise team.
New Orleans Saints
If the Saints are going to be successful, their best hope might be to simply outsling opponents. Quarterback Aaron Brooks is healthy again after being set back by shoulder problems and running back Deuce McAllister is one of the NFL's best two-way offensive weapons. In fact, he might possess a pair of the best hands of any player in the league.
Brooks also gets to play with targets like Pro Bowl wideout Joe Horn, solid Jerome Pathon and second-year speedster Donte Stallworth. The group together, provided they play up to snuff, rivals any top five in the NFL.
The offensive line replaced Kyle Turley with pass-blocking specialist Wayne Gandy, who has struggled a bit. If they can protect Brooks, defenses will be in the middle of open hunting season.
Defensively, the Saints are still looking for an identity against the pass. They have decent horses up front and speed in the secondary from guys like Tebucky Jones and Dale Carter, but they need the group to come together. Coordinator Rick Venturi is a solid coach, but his players and Jim Haslett need to have patience with the defense Venturi is trying to mold.
First-round pick Jon Sullivan must step up in the middle of the defensive line to help outside guys Darren Howard and Charles Grant. If he doesn't, the team will need to find other ways to put pressure on the quarterback from the inside.
If this unit can step up and return maven Michael Lewis can have another Pro Bowl year, then the Saints are just as much a candidate for the division as their counterparts. Remember, too, the Saints beat the Bucs twice last year.
Who to choose? Who to choose?
Best offensive player: Vick when healthy. McAllister in the meantime.
Best defensive player: Bucs defensive tackle Simeon Rice.
Biggest impact rookie: Sullivan.
Best coach: If the Falcons can win without Vick, the nod goes to Dan Reeves. If not, it's a tossup of whichever team wins this tough, tough division.
Can't-miss game: Bucs-Falcons on Saturday, Dec. 20 at Raymond James Stadium. Vick should be ready to roll by then and both teams will be coming off a short week.
NFC South preview- CBS Sportsline
I like seeing this:
Biggest impact rookie: Sullivan.
I hope he\'s right.
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