The 2011 NFL Season preview
NFC South and West



New Orleans (12-4)

I’ve got to be honest, it’s an improving defense and the addition of Mark Ingram that has me leaning toward New Orleans in the NFC South… and also making them a Super Bowl pick. If they knock off Green Bay to start the year… if they start strong… they could be heading to Indianapolis in February. (And of the two, starting strong is the most important.)

The thing is… Julio Jones could be a candidate for offensive player of the year in Atlanta… so winning the NFC South is no easy task.

What I like about New Orleans though is easy to see in their 2011 draft.

One selection, from a trade that landed them Ingram, is huge. Basically, the Saints had a decent running game. But… Reggie Bush, for all his talent, explosiveness, and keep-an-eye-on-him dazzle, was easily banged up. It’s hard to strike fear in the hearts of opponents with a player that’s in street clothes and inactive.

The other five selections went to two for defensive line, two for linebackers, and one for a corner. Defense… defense… defense… defense… defense. Now all five of those selections aren’t going to contribute. Heck… right now at least one is injured and another on the practice squad, and knowing that was the result of a quick look. But it’s a theme…

This organization was talented, and they trimmed away some of the rough edges (Bush) and potentially made them younger and stronger (Ingram). They were better on defense than they had been when they won a championship, but they were still in the vicinity of average-at-best, so they went out and got younger and faster with Gregg Williams set up with lots of options to really dominate some games if the offense doesn’t click.

In all honesty, it’s the Falcons and Bucs that keep the Saints in check. Those four tough games, along with the Packers on opening night, will keep this team challenged and likely away from 13 or 14 wins. But make no mistake… the Saints are one of the best five teams in the NFL.

Atlanta (11-5)

And the Falcons may be another one of the five.


There is zero question that they will reach 10 wins. And I’m virtually sure that barring Matt Ryan not playing, they will win 11 or more. Tough defense… good team character… a record of quality performance under this quarterback and coaching staff in recent years. Good… good… even better.

The things I am hearing about Julio Jones are great, and with Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, Ryan will have options for breakout plays, great hands, and go-to reliability. Suddenly the Falcons appear frisky and to-be-feared on offense. On top of that… all of their draft picks seem to be sticking with the club. (I think only Andrew Jackson… practice squad now… failed to make the opening day roster.) So they may even be able to claim they are getting a bit younger while remaining solid at their core.

The trouble is… it’s a nasty word, but here we go… the trouble is expectations.

Would you believe the Falcons have gone 33-15 in the regular season under Mike Smith? That’s true. It covers three seasons, and Smith has never failed to win fewer than 9 games. 11 wins… 9 wins… 13 wins. Smith and the Falcons are also 0-2 in the playoffs over those three seasons.

No one expected 11 wins or the playoffs in 2008 after they went 4-12 in 2007. Not after the Bobby Petrino fiasco and other turmoil. But when the spotlight got bright in 2009, they did slip a bit. Did ok… but not a real improvement with just 9 wins and no playoffs. 2010… no one expected 13 victory or a division win.

I like the Falcons. I think of them as a good, balanced organization. Eventually though this needs to be brought up another notch. Another division crown. Playoff victories. Expectations.

Tampa Bay (9-7)

Let’s get this out of the way… because it becomes quite similar to why I think Kansas City may improve in 2011 compared to last year, and yet have a worse record. Last season the Bucs hit 10-6, didn’t make the playoffs (in part thanks to New Orleans and Atlanta). And, part of their ten wins included Carolina (beat them twice), Cleveland, Cincinnati, Washington, and a run through the NFC West (the incompetent grouping of St. Louis, Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle… where they swept all four contests).

This is a good, young team. This is also a team that turned in a solid performance by defeating just about every club they should have beaten in 2010. Easy as that.

In 2011 the role of conference rotation that was served in 2010 by the washed out NFC West is being played by the NFC North… with Green Bay and an improved Detroit club. (The Lions beat the Bucs in overtime last season.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we shouldn’t expect them to go 4-0 in those games.

All is not lost though. The AFC games involve Indianapolis (early in the year, so as we speak Manning is questionable), the inconsistent Houston club that may be the best that division offers, and then the weaker Tennessee and Jacksonville clubs. They could win any of those games.

But for every up… the third place finish in the NFC North gives them San Francisco as one game, there is a down… the third place finish gives them the 2010 underachieving Dallas as one game.

In reality… things could get rolling. For the early season, only Atlanta and New Orleans are there as major opponents, and they get both of those games at home. (The road games against them come later on.) With Detroit, Minnesota, Indianapolis, San Francisco and Chicago rounding out the first seven weeks, they could easily be at 4-3 or better when October ends.

Josh Freeman appears ready for his close up. He showed poise and character in 2010 without much around him. And, as symbolized by the release of Cadillac Williams, the club is moving on, getting younger and healthier.

I like it.

Not many teams allowed fewer points in 2010 than the Bucs, and the defense looks loaded and ready to be a force this season.

In all honesty the only problem I have with Tampa is that New Orleans and Atlanta are better. That’s it. Last season the three clubs in this division having 10 or more wins wasn’t a fluke, but it will be hard to repeat.

Carolina (2-14)

I gave them two wins because going 0-16 is just short of impossible. But let’s be honest… they are going to be destroyed by their divisional schedule, and it gets no easier after that.

New quarterback… new head coach… and here that unites with the shortened offseason to equal a disaster in development.

Now… let’s look at it from a “what could go right” concept.

Season opens with a yet-to-be-proven Arizona, and brings Jacksonville, Washington and Minnesota to Carolina for games before the end of October. New head coach Ron Rivera is a solid defensive guy… and I think we could quickly see the Panthers improve on what was a brutal disparity between points given up (one of the worst in the league at over 25 per game) and points scored (league worst at about 12 per game, at 196 total for the year, and 75 points behind the closest low-scorer).

But teams kept the Panthers from scoring last year… and they will be teeing off on the quality Panthers running game because they have zero fear of the Carolina passing game.

This is going to be a season to forget.



Worst division in football.

There is going to be a very deserving team… despite my predictions, likely one with 10 or 11 victories… heading home after playing 16 regular season games because a playoff spot is guaranteed to each division winner, so the NFC West gets to send someone to the party.

Arizona (7-9)

While I am not going to predict great things for Arizona here in writing, I will tell you that of all the swirling controversy and whiffs of potential in this division, I do like a few things here more than what is in place in other divisional organizations.

Ken Wisenhunt strikes me as a fairly even-handed coach. That isn’t meant as a review… but rather that I seldom seem to catch Arizona too high or too low. They tend to play hard week after week. And… ok… sum it up by saying a rotation of Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton should have led to worse than a 5-11 record.

Enter Kolb. A quarterback that will be given the keys for the full season. Arizona is likely to improve each week during the year.

A thing that scares me is that this club gave up points virtually without compare in 2010. (Carolina and Dallas were the only other NFC clubs to give up more than 400 points.) While they weren’t awesome in 2009 either, they did give up about 6-points-per-game less than they did in 2010… so an improvement to general league average could be enough if the offense responds.

St. Louis (7-9)

In 2009 the Rams scored 175 points. Yuck.

Last year they added Sam Bradford… that’s the Legendary Sam Bradford to you… and scored 289.

Nice… right?

Well… sort of. They bring back Steve Spagnuolo for a third year, and have shown solid improvements under his guidance. Plus… do not underestimate Josh McDaniels as an offensive coordinator. Could be huge for Bradford and the offense.

But remember those horrendous quarterbacks I just mentioned for Arizona last year? Yeah… well… the Cardinals also scored 289 points in 2010, and I don’t recall the Arizona offense getting the same press that rookie Bradford and St. Louis were getting.

The 4-12 Denver Broncos averaged about 4-points-per-game more than St. Louis last season. Washington outscored them by a couple too. In short, we’ve been down the Steven Jackson and an unstoppable wagon train ride before with the Rams. Easy folks, easy, take it down a notch.

There is plenty to like here… and a lot to get excited about… but let’s not raise the bar to 9 or 10 wins and the playoffs just yet.

In fact… they may have the most brutal opening schedule in football. 0-8 is possible. Don’t believe me? Ok…

Philadelphia, at New York (Giants), Baltimore, Washington, at Green Bay, at Dallas, New Orleans, at Arizona.

That’s the first 8 games. Do you see them at 4-4 after that stretch? If they are… I will be wrong. Because the second half of the season has some potholes, but nothing nearly as severe as that opening.

This is a team that should surge in November and December. The question is surviving the start to take advantage of it.

Seattle (7-9)

I like the Sidney Rice acquisition. Could be huge. (Could also be a tremendous flop.) After that… eh… not so much.

My problem is there is a whole lot of “maybe” in Seattle.

Marshawn Lynch.

There’s example number one. Find the search engine of your choice and enter these four words… Marshawn – Lynch – Seahawks – Saints… and I pretty much guarantee that one of the first three results will be a video of a great touchdown run.

Go back over his career and you will find questions about his personal life (legal troubles), some injuries, and lack of consistency.

Overall… I like him as a player. I would be willing to build a backfield around him, and even think of him as the featured back. Talented… can impact and take over any game… great option to have. My understanding is that he supports the communities he plays in. Wonderful. Good stuff.

And… there is also pretty much nothing you could type or say after his name that would surprise me on a Thursday afternoon news update, with the result of the item being that he wouldn’t play on Sunday.

Want to look a bit deeper at this? Ok…

Tarvaris Jackson… Charlie Whitehurst… Josh Portis… there are the quarterbacks. Are you winning a division with those quarterbacks? In six of the eight NFL divisions… no. The NFC West? Maybe.

Leon Washington… Marcus Trufant… I could list any group of names you want… offense or defense… will they be in the play of the game moments in any particular week? Maybe.

Maybe… maybe… maybe… and with at least one team winning the division and getting a postseason spot, maybe counts as enough here.

San Francisco (7-9)

I think Jim Harbaugh has a chance to be a decent NFL head coach. (I also have moments when I wonder if Alex Smith has really been given a fair shot at leading this club.)

Let’s check out the schedule first. Seattle at home, Dallas at home, the road for Cincinnati and Philadelphia, Tampa at home, and then the road for Detroit. There are several teams… St. Louis definitely… that would trade for those six opponents in a heartbeat. After that, they have Cleveland and Washington, and unbelievably then still have five divisional games against this so-so group. So… yeah… they have no ability to cry about scheduling problems. If they play well, there is plenty of opportunity to get into the playoffs.

Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree give them some decent skill players, and Braylon Edwards and Vernon Davis have their moments as well. I can’t say I love their defense, but it’s not hideous.

The true summary though is simple… they need a minimum of three touchdowns to have a chance to win any game. The defense isn’t holding anyone under 10… and most opponents will score at least 20-24. How often will the 49ers score 21…23… 27 points? From what I’ve seen of that offensive line… showing in the preseason the same comedy they displayed last season… I’m guessing the over/under answer will be less than half of their contests.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at