As originally posted here.
The NFC South still remains a very competitive division in 2011. Even at 2-6, the Carolina Panthers are exciting to watch as Cam Newton is showing that ability to be their franchise quarterback much like Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman did last year. Here are the analysis and grades of each team.
New Orleans Saints (6-3)
The Saints are coming off a much-needed home win over the Bucs on Nov. 6. Quarterback Drew Brees leads the way completing 71 percent of his passes and throwing for 3004 yards, 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. The three-headed attack of Darren Sproles, Mark Ingram, and Pierre Thomas has combined rushing for 987 yards and seven touchdowns. Sproles in particular has emerged as a dual threat catching 56 passes for 446 yards and three scores.
The biggest emerging star is tight end Jimmy Graham who leads all Saints receivers with 55 receptions for 791 yards and five touchdowns. He has surpassed receiver Marques Colston as Brees’ primary target.
The Saints defense ranks in respectively in the middle (14th in passing and 17th in rushing). Safety Roman Harper and linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar lead the way combining for 99 tackles. Given the current offensive pace, should suffice for a run at the Super Bowl. The Saints play a formidable remaining schedule with key matchups against Falcons, Giants and Lions.
Atlanta Falcons (5-3)
The Falcons traded away numerous draft picks away to secure Alabama sensation receiver Julio Jones in the first round. He only caught three balls against the Indianapolis Colts last week, but for all intensive purposes, became his breakout game as he tallied 131 yards and scoring his first touchdowns of the season. He’s caught 28 balls for 489 yards for the season in his role complementing lead receiver Roddy White. White leads all Falcons receivers with 43 catches for 501 yards and three touchdowns. The venerable tight end Tony Gonzalez leads in touchdown catches at five.
Quarterback Matt Ryan, while not having as great a year this season is still formidable completing 60.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 1958 yards, 12 touchdowns, but matching his interception total from last year at 9. Running back Michael Turner is on pace to match last season’s rushing yard total of 1371, currently at 692. Turner has also rushed for seven touchdowns.
The Falcons have remained well in the running despite losses against Chicago, Tampa Bay, and Green Bay. They won the games they should have won. The upcoming home game against the Saints on Sunday may help dictate the NFC South playoff picture. With the exception of the Texans, the Falcons play a soft schedule playing against the likes of the Titans, Vikings, Panthers and Jaguars until the last two weeks of the season where they close out the season against the Saints and the Bucs.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-4)
The Raheem Morris’ “Youngry” Buccaneers just got a little older and grisly claiming “journeyman” Albert Haynesworth from the Patriots. While it breaks the emphasis on younger players, save for cornerback Ronde Barber, it does remain consistent with their frugal ways as Haynesworth will play for less than $1 million for the Bucs in the 2011 season. Haynesworth’s acquisition fulfills a big question mark left by injured first-rounder, Gerald McCoy, who’s out for the season.
While quarterback Josh Freeman is in his third year, he’s playing his second full year as Bucs starting QB. He has shown some inconsistent plays which may eventually make him into a sophomore jinx unless his offensive line and receivers help him. Freeman has completed 62.9 percent of his passes, throwing for 2004 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Freeman’s production has also been hampered by the lack of a complete back. With Earnest Graham out for the season and LeGarrette Blount unable to become an effective pass blocker in the backfield, the Bucs had to turn to their third back Kregg Lumpkin. Blount, in his limited capacity, ran for 400 yards on 90 carries and three touchdowns. Opponents have also limited Freeman’s scrambling abilities send spies and collapsing on the pocket forcing more throws. On top of that, penalties have killed most of the Bucs offensive drives.
The next couple weeks may help determine the Bucs’ playoff fate if they’re to keep up with the likes of Atlanta and New Orleans. Victories against the Texans and the Packers may help prove the Bucs belong in the playoff hunt. The addition of Haynesworth may provide the key to their success up the middle especially against the likes of an Aaron Rodgers.
Carolina Panthers (2-6)
Fans have a reason to rejoice for next year since quarterback Cam Newton has looked as polished as he can be given the team he has. The first-overall pick has completed 60.6 percent of his passes, throwing for 2393 yards, 11 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
Newton is also heading a three-headed running attack with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart who have combined for 999 yards and 8 touchdowns. Newton’s primary target is the always-reliable Steve Smith, who may survive the transition yet. Smith has caught 46 passes for 918 yards and four touchdowns.
The exception of the Falcons and the Redskins games, the Panthers’ games have all been decided within a score. They came back from a tough loss against Atlanta, 31-17, only to come back and manhandle the Redskins, 33-20. Coach Ron Rivera has a lot to build on and has a real chance to play spoiler this year. They have a real shot of going .500 to close out the season against the likes of the Titans, Colts, Bucs, and Saints.
Under Rivera, the Panthers are a top-10 offense (5th overall in passing and 8th in rushing). A few acquisitions in the offseason and strong draft may bring them back in the playoff hunt.