NFC South preview

By By Tom Quinn

By Tom Quinn

Attention football fans: Those of you who enjoy high-powered offensive shootouts had better look elsewhere, because the NFC South is not for you.

Defense rules the NFL’s NASCAR division, and whichever team manages to dominate the trenches will undoubtedly be the last team standing in late December.

And when it comes to defense, nobody, not even the over-hyped Panthers, gets the job done quite as well as Tampa Bay.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (11-5)

In a league where players come and go faster than Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, standing pat in free agency seems unusual, if not foolish. But in 2006, Jon Gruden bet his reputation as a genius that sticking with what works isn’t such a bad idea, after all.

The Bucs bring back all 22 of their starters from the team that went 11-5 and brought home the division title in 2005.

Gruden made a few subtle moves during the offseason, using free agency to get both younger and deeper on both sides of the ball. Players such as Jamie Winborn and David Boston add depth and are benefiting from a second wind in Tampa.

With an improved O-line, Cadillac Williams should have no trouble improving on last year’s numbers, and Chris Simms will have plenty of time to make the most of his first year as a full-time starter.

The NFL’s best defense is a year wiser, as is Joey Galloway. Assuming Michael Clayton breaks out of his sophomore funk, the Bucs will overcome a brutal schedule and match last year’s record of 11-5.

2. Carolina Panthers (10-6)

Memo to Panthers fans: First of all, congrats on learning how to read. I’ll try to avoid using big words so that you’ll be able to enjoy my article to the fullest.

Although I am well aware that every major sports publication west of Istanbul has picked the Panthers to win both the division and the Super Bowl, I refuse to jump on the bandwagon. Things just sound too good to be true.

The Panthers, as usual, did a good job improving their team via free agency, beefing-up both their offensive and defensive lines and adding a decent possession receiver, Keyshawn Johnson.

On paper, Carolina looks great. In reality, the Panthers have proven to be chronic underachievers. They are the new Eagles, a team that always gets picked to win the big one but never makes it over the hump.

Here’s the skinny: The defense rarely plays up to its potential. Steve Smith hasn’t practiced all summer, and Jake Delhomme doesn’t take care of the ball. Throw in Me-shawn’s mouth and you’ve got another heartbreaking, 10-6 season.

3. Atlanta Falcons (8-8)

If championships were handed out based solely on athletic ability, the Falcons would be in the middle of a dynasty, not struggling to make the playoffs.

Between Michael Vick and his trio of raw wide receivers, Atlanta packs more untapped talent than any other team in the league. Vick is a walking highlight reel, and both Roddy White and Michael Jenkins are both imposing physical specimens.

Unfortunately, offensive inconsistency will force Jim Mora to lean heavily on his front seven, which features a trio of headhunters in John Abraham, Patrick Kerney and Keith Brooking.

The secondary, however, is still a work-in-progress. Aside from DeAngelo Hall, the Falcons don’t have a consistent playmaker in the defensive backfield, and good teams will pass all over them.

Free-agent acquisition Lawyer Milloy will help, assuming he can still play. He’s been walking the line between veteran and has-been for two or three seasons now, and not everyone thought that signing him was a good idea.

Vick needs to improve his pedestrian 73.1 passer rating before this team will finish any better than 8-8.

4. New Orleans Saints (6-10)

The Saints get kudos for all the work they did during the offseason. Not only did they improve their football team, but they rejuvenated a city.

Reggie Bush and Drew Brees will put fans in the seats, and the two-headed rushing monster of Bush and Duce McAllister will give the Saints one of the top backfields in the league.

The defense, however, suffers from a lack of playmakers, and the team is perilously thin at wide receiver. If Joe Horn gets hurt, then God help the Saints.

Brees also enters the season surrounded by questions. Even if he recovers completely from the torn labrum that ended his 2005 season, will he be the same player without Antonio Gates and LaDanian Tomlinson?

Still one year away from playoff contention, the Saints will be the gutsiest 6-10 team in the NFL this season.