The NFC South standings could end up completely upside-down from last year. It's not that the Falcons have gotten worse, though they haven't gotten much better. It's not that the Buccaneers made a quantum leap forward, though Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson represent at least a crow hop. The real issue is that many factors came together to make 2012 a weird season for the NFC South: BountyGate, Cam's TowelScam, the collapse of the Buccaneers passing game and pass defense, and a charmed regular season for the Falcons. If a few things return to normal, the NFC South standings will be primed for a shakeup.
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New Orleans Saints
In a tweet: Picking up where they were before the rude interruption.
What's New: Forget Bountygate! Or else! The NFL is kicking kitty litter over that witch hunt/overreach of administrative power. Sean Payton is back, Jonathan Vilma is back and Rob Ryan brings a blitzing scheme and bluster reminiscent of Gregg Williams. As long as the pregame rants don't get carried away…
What's Old: Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Pierre Thomas, and Vilma are among the starters who helped the Saints win a Super Bowl four years ago.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Saints had the worst defense in the NFL according to advanced metrics last season, and their problems were most apparent on first down. The Saints allowed 5.5 yards per rush on first down and 8.5 yards per pass. When opponents enjoy 2nd-and-3 on series after series, there is not a lot the offense can do to compensate. Ryan's first job, before blitzing the kitchen sink, will be to shut off the yardage spigot on 1st-and-10.
Best Case Scenario: The Saints can win the Super Bowl with a typical Payton-Brees offense and a middle-of-the-back defense.
Worst-Case Scenario: Ryan fails to install a middle-of-the-pack defense. The switch from a Williams 3-4 to a Steve Spagnuolo traditional 4-3 to a Ryan 3-4 has caused roster whiplash over the last few years. Some players were acquired for roles that no longer exist, others have flip-flopped from end to linebacker or two-gap to one-gap without mastering either. Ryan may need a year to sort things out. He must also prove that he does not have Dom Capers disease: a blind spot when it comes to read-options and other new wrinkles. (The Redskins picked Ryan's Cowboys apart last year).
Bottom Line: It has become clear that the Ryan twins each inherited only half of their father's heavy-blitzing, nose-thumbing birthright. But while Rex Ryan is doomed to relive his father's head coaching career in reverse, Rob Ryan is taking a cue from Buddy's days as an assistant by riding shotgun beside a sure-handed leader. Payton and Brees can deliver 30 points like clockwork. Ryan just has to keep opponents below 28 most weeks. It's an easy job, and if he does it right, Ryan might finally get his own head coaching gig. Just in time to hire his brother.
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In a tweet: Take the towel off, Cam: you have a defense that's worth watching.
What's New: Rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short join second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to give the Panthers the most dynamic young interior defenses in the NFL. Ted Ginn Jr. provides a deep threat receiver to complement Steve Smith and a dangerous, sure-handed return man: special teams turnovers were a major problem last year. Domenik "The Human PUP List" Hixon adds further receiving depth if healthy. Offensive mastermind Rob Chudzinski has been replaced by Mike Shula, whose father owns a chain of steakhouses.
What's Old: Cam Newton leadership questions will linger until the moment he wins a Super Bowl, and while there is a little fire beneath the "immaturity" smoke in this case, Newton quietly put together a solid second half in 2012. Veterans like Dwan Edwards, Thomas Davis and Jon Beason take some pressure off the defensive youngsters. Putting Beason and Hixon on the same roster is the kind of thing that makes health insurance premiums triple, and both were injured for part of camp. Both appear to be ready to roll in Week One.
Football Outsiders Stat: Newton's yards-per-attempt, interception percentage and quarterback rating actually got better last year after his historic 2011 season. He also ran for more yards and more yards per carry. Yes, some other important indicators went down, but the "disastrous" sophomore slump only existed in fantasy football -- Newton's touchdown totals tailed off -- and in the minds of people who think that quarterbacks are responsible for everything that happens to a team.
Best-Case Scenario: The Beason-Kuechly-Davis linebacker corps becomes the best in the NFL, and the defensive line (named MonStrz Inc. by end Greg Hardy) keeps shell-shocked blockers away from the second level. The offense suffers no brain drain with Coach Chud's departure, and Newton finds that it is easier to "lead" 24-17 victories than 44-38 ones.
Worst-Case Scenario: Shula somehow coached Alabama to a 26-23 record in the early 2000s, and he appears to have scrapped a lot of Chud's Cam-friendly option wrinkles in favor of something John Parker Wilson might have run in a loss to Tennessee. Head coach Ron Rivera's puzzling late-game decisions led directly to several Panthers losses last year. Of course, if the Panthers go 7-9 because the head coach punts on 4th-and-inches or the offensive coordinator is stuck on 1990s tactics, Newton and his towel will take the blame.
Bottom Line: General manager Marty Hurney and many of Rivera's assistants were fired in the weeks between the Panthers' 1-6 start in 2012 and the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year. Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott survived the bloodletting, and they now must prove that they deserved to stay. Newton bore the brunt of the blame for the team's close losses, and he contributed heavily to some of them, but Rivera was often mixed up about when to punt, go for it, or kick a field goal, while McDermott dialed up soft prevent defenses at some of the most inappropriate times (see the first Falcons game, or the Bears game). The Panthers now have too much talent to fall out of the playoff race before Halloween. If it happens again, it will be because the "lack of leadership" issue runs deeper than a quarterback who drapes a towel over his head on the sideline. (Thanks to Vince Verhei and his excellent Football Outsiders Almanac chapter for many of the details in this capsule).
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In a tweet: Trying to relive the magic of 2010-2012. Yes, that was magic. No, you cannot relive it.
What's New: The Falcons took the one-for-one replacement approach as they shed veteran stars in the offseason. John Abraham is leaving? Get Osi Umenyiora, a similar pass rusher in his twilight years. Michael Turner is all used up? Steven Jackson still has some toothpaste in the tube. Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes are gone at cornerback? Get as many of the Trufant brothers as are available, even if it's only the rookie, Desmond Trufant!
What's Old: Tony Gonzalez is retiring? Beg him to stay!
Football Outsiders Stat: Opponents broke 92 tackles against the Falcons, the second highest total in the NFL. (The Eagles were worse, with 97 broken tackles.) Broken tackles became a huge problem for the Falcons in the playoffs, and the situation won't get any better this season. Trufant is a whiz at coverage, but he was a soft tackler in college. At least Asante Samuel is on the other side of the field to show him how it's done. Wait, no! That's a bad thing!
Best-Case Scenario: Jackson and Umenyiora, both younger than the guys they replaced, provide a modest upgrade. The defense learns to tackle and starts actually appearing on the television screen on downfield receptions during playoff games. The Falcons take the final step, which has looked like a sheer cliff face for so long.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Falcons are picked away at by a dozen factors: a stronger division, age at key positions, a rebuilt offensive line and plain-old regression to the mean.
Bottom Line: Many of the little indicators that Football Outsiders and other statistical analysts use to project performance are pointing downward for the Falcons. But you don't have to comb spreadsheets to see warning signs. The Falcons won a lot of close games and beat some bad opponents last year. They have not gotten appreciably better, but all three division opponents have, and the schedule is backloaded with the Seahawks, Packers (in Green Bay in December), Redskins, and 49ers (in San Francisco). The Falcons could play as well as they did last year and get very different results. Staying in the NFC chase for the long haul will require more than spackle repairs: the Falcons need to get better, on defense and elsewhere, and they may need to get worse for a year to make that happen.
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Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In a tweet: To get to Revis Island, the Bucs must brave the treacherous shoals of Freeman's Lagoon.
What's New: Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson turn one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL (26th in the league in 2012, according to Football Outsiders) into potentially one of the best. Mike Glennon will give Josh Freeman a reason to snap out of his patented funks, or give Greg Schiano an alternative to weeks of suffering behind Evil Josh.
What's Old: Not much. The Buccaneers have turned over most of the roster in the last two seasons under Schiano and GM Mark Dominik. The desiccated husk of Ronde Barber was hand-trucked off to a television studio in the offseason, leaving few ties to the Jon Gruden or abortive Raheem Morris eras.
Football Outsiders Stat: The Buccaneers had a great run defense last year. And no, it was not one of those situations where the pass defense was so bad that teams just threw the ball, making the run defense stats look good. The Bucs stuffed opponents for no gain or a loss on 32% of all running plays, the highest percentage in the last 20 years. Combine the Revis-led secondary with this run defense, and … you can figure it out.
Best-Case Scenario: Revis takes out the top receiver. The run defense takes out the running back. Goldson's got the tight end. Opponents cannot score. Doug Martin controls the clock, leaving Freeman to hit the broadsides of some barns on the way to the postseason.
Worst-Case Scenario: Revis is not the same after the injury. Freeman IS the same after years of wild inconsistency. The division is tough, and the Buccaneers become just another team hanging around .500 or so.
Bottom Line: The Buccaneers could be primed for a playoff run similar to the one last year's Vikings enjoyed. No, Martin is not Adrian Peterson, but he is very good, and the Buccaneers have the defense and ancillary weapons to bring a scatter-armed quarterback along for a 10-win ride. The only things standing in their way are a team that won the Super Bowl four years ago, a team that came within a few plays of the Super Bowl last year and another team hoping to ride the great defense-flighty quarterback express. Preseason injuries (plus a MRSA outbreak) don't bode well for a team that needs many things to break right in 2013, but the young talent core has lots of growth potential, even if a new quarterback is growing along with them.
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If you like the stats and want more, check out Football Outsiders Almanac, on sale now and available for instant download!