Ten Burning Questions: NFC South
1. Can Carolina rebound from an injury-dominated 2004 to be Super Bowl material again?
Remember late last season, when absolutely no one in the NFC playoff hunt wanted to see Carolina qualify, Philadelphia included? The Panthers' bid to become the first team to start 1-7 and make the postseason fell one win short, but it still left them looking like one of the teams to beat in the NFC this year. John Fox's team has few holes, and the only competition in camp will be for backup roles and on special teams. The Panthers have to prove they can beat the Falcons -- against whom they went 0-2 in 2004 -- but barring another plague of injuries, Carolina won't come up short of the playoffs this time.
2. Can Michael Vick take his passing game to a new level?
It seems like we've been hashing over the topic for decades now, but it might surprise you to learn that Vick still has only 40 career NFL starts under his belt. First, the good news: Vick's 56.4 completion percentage last season was a career high. Still, with a mere 181 completions for 2,313 passing yards in 2004, there's plenty of room to improve. The Falcons are counting on Vick being more comfortable and confident in the West Coast offense, with sharper timing and quicker decisions. He needs to be, because the run-first Falcons could use some offensive balance.
3. Can the Falcons win big again with an offense that's so heavily keyed to the run?
Logic says no, but in 2004, Atlanta went against modern-day conventional wisdom in the pass-happy NFL and thrived. The Falcons ranked first in rushing and 30th in passing, were the only team to collect more first downs (133) on the ground than in the air (120) and averaged more rushing yards per game (167) than passing yards (150.8). Atlanta's 20 rushing TDs were an NFC- high, and Vick finished just 98 yards shy of a 1,000-yard rushing season. Atlanta can expect defenses to load up against the run and dare them to beat them with the pass.
4. Will the Saints pick up where they left off in 2004, when they won their last four games and saved head coach Jim Haslett's job?
It's a bit of a oxymoron, calling the roller coaster-like Saints the NFL's most unpredictable team over the course of the past four seasons. After all, since winning its division in 2000, New Orleans is a perfectly sea level 32-32, finishing between 7-9 and 9-7 every year. But that really doesn't tell the story, does it? Haslett still is on the job because his guys can play -- but seemingly only when they want to. Fast starts, fast finishes: The Saints have had both in recent years. If they can avoid flat-lining for half the season one of these years, they could make some noise in a tough division.
5. Is Saints QB Aaron Brooks playing on a short leash in 2005?
Nobody personifies the Saints' erratic ways quite like Brooks, who is entering his fifth and most pivotal season as his team's fulltime starter. After a career-best showing in 2003, Brooks regressed last year and furthered his reputation for making key gaffes at inopportune times. He has scored high marks for his preparation and mature approach this offseason, but it's time he got serious. New Orleans drafted the talented but raw Adrian McPherson in the fifth round, and the Saints can't afford to show Brooks as much patience through a losing streak this time around.
6. Will Cadillac Williams be the engine that drives the Tampa Bay running game?
The Bucs and their perennially challenged ground game certainly hope so, which is why they spent the draft's No. 5 pick on the Auburn running back. In the past four seasons, the Bucs leading rusher has gained a modest 926, 751, 718 and 680 yards, with Michael Pittman accounting for the first three totals and Mike Alstott the final one. The Bucs haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn (1,133) in 2000, and haven't seen anyone reach 1,200 yards since Errict Rhett (1,207) in 1995. Williams will get every opportunity to buck that trend for Tampa Bay's 29th-ranked rushing attack.
7. Can the Bucs count on quarterback Brian Griese to play as well as he did last season?
Depending on Griese has been a dicey proposition so far in his first seven NFL seasons. He couldn't handle the John Elway mantle in Denver and looked washed up during his one lost year in Miami. But Griese resurrected his career with his 10-game starting performance last season in Tampa Bay, earning himself a new Bucs contract. Griese tailed off a bit toward season's end, losing his final three starts after going 5-3 in his first eight games. But with only the untested Chris Simms and Luke McCown behind him, it's Griese's job to lose in Tampa Bay.
8. Can Carolina withstand the loss of Muhsin Muhammad's 93 catches and 16 TDs?
The man they call "Moose'' turned in a monster season in 2004, racking up 1,405 yards and an All-Pro selection at age 31. But the Panthers were wise not to overpay to keep him in free agency (he went to Chicago); he wasn't even Carolina's No. 1 receiver. That would be Steve Smith, who was injured and lost for the season in last year's opener. Muhammad wouldn't have had all those gaudy numbers if Smith were healthy, which is the case once again. Thanks to the emergence of No. 2 receiver Keary Colbert (47 catches as a rookie), the Panthers' receiving corps should be in good hands.
9. Will Jim Mora be able to follow up on his spectacular first-year success in Atlanta?
The Falcons rookie head coach set the bar ridiculously high in 2004, leading a club that many had pegged for .500 to 11 wins and a berth in the NFC title game. Now comes the hard part. The Falcons have never had consecutive winning seasons in their 39-year franchise history, and job No. 1 is to put that embarrassing streak to rest. Mora has a great shot to get it done, but by no means are the Falcons a sure thing. They could plummet as quickly as they rose last year. In its first five games, Atlanta faces four '04 playoff teams, and the right-on-the-cusp Bills. This year, they'll sneak up on no one.
10. Who's the division's most dominant play-maker?
Vick, you say? Joe Horn? Anybody for Simeon Rice or Warrick Dunn? You can have 'em. We'll take Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, whose impact was felt all over the field in 2004. Peppers rolled up 11 sacks, giving him 30 in his first three NFL seasons. But he was more than a pass rusher. He picked off two passes, returning one for a 46-yard touchdown and another for 97 yards. He defensed seven passes, and forced four fumbles, recovering one fumble and returning it 60 yards for a highlight-film moment against Atlanta. He even played a little goal-line offense.
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