Since its inception in 2002, every member of the NFC South has won the division title at least once (with Tampa Bay winning it twice). No team has ever repeated as champion (although Tampa Bay probably should have last season if Monte Kiffin hadn't left and the defense then didn't implode), and 4 of the 7 champions finished the previous season in last place (while two others finished 3rd the year before). In fact, only twice has a team finished a season in the same place as it did the season before (the 2003 and 2004 Saints finished second, and the 2005 and 2006 Falcons finished third). What does all of this mean for the 2009 season? Well, you can count Carolina out as division champs, and you should probably put your money on the Saints.
ORDER OF FINISH
y-New Orleans Saints 9-7
Carolina Panthers 6-10
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10
Atlanta Falcons 5-11
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans
If Drew Brees were a pitcher or designated hitter, Congress would be holding hearings to determine what drugs he was on.* After being selected in the second round of the 2001 draft by the San Diego Chargers, Brees's first three seasons in the NFL were anything but...breezy. Appearing in 28 games, Brees completed 59.4% of his passes for 5613 yards, 29 TDs, 31 INTs, and a 79.3 QB rating (compare those stats to Brees's 2008 stats: 65% completions, 5069 yards, 34 TDs, 17 INTs, 96.2 rating. You see where I'm going with this, right?). Following a 2003 season that saw the Chargers go 4-12 (behind Brees's 67.5 QB rating), San Diego acquired North Carolina State QB Philip Rivers to be their quarterback of the future. Brees's days as a starting QB appeared to be over. Or were they? Over the next two years for San Diego, Brees put up borderline All-Pro numbers (including an amazing 27-7 TD/INT ratio in 2004), leading the Chargers to a playoff appearance and a two-year record of 21-11. Entering free agency, Brees should have been the hottest item on the market, right? WRONG! After tearing his labrum in the season finale, San Diego low-balled their initial offer, and the only other two teams interested were Miami and New Orleans. After the Dolphins decided he wasn't worth the risk and traded for Daunte Culpepper (ouch), Brees ended up a Saint. Since signing in New Orleans, the former Purdue star has arguably been the best quarterback in the NFL. (Culpepper, on the other hand, not so much.)
*Now, I don't really think Drew Brees is using performance-enhancing drugs (Brees is simply one of those players who feeds off slights--the Chargers drafting Philip Rivers and the entire NFL being scared off by his torn labrum--and happened to hook up with a coach in Sean Payton who knows exactly how to utilize his talents). I am only illustrating the difference in public perception between MLB and the NFL. Remember, this is the league that named Shawn Merriman Defensive Player of the Year the same season he was suspended for testing positive for steroids. If Manny Ramirez were to be named the MVP this year, Skip Bayless's head would explode.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons
The fact that this isn't Derrick Brooks or even Julius Peppers makes me feel old. Seriously, though, Abraham has been a beast for the Falcons. In the two seasons since the Falcons traded for him, Abraham has 26 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, and, most importantly, 32 out of 32 starts. The fact that DE Jamaal Anderson has only manage 2 career sacks playing opposite Abraham speaks volumes about how well Anderson is living up to his lofty draft status (8th overall, 2007).
BEST COACH: Sean Payton, New Orleans
You could easily argue for Carolina's John Fox, and I would (and should) probably agree with you. Fox is 63-49 in 7 seasons with the Panthers, with 3 division championships, two NFC title games, and one Super Bowl appearance. Last season, he tied the franchise record for wins with a 12-4 season, and probably would have appeared in a 3rd NFC title game (and possibly 2nd Super Bowl) if Jake Delhomme hadn't pooped himself. You know what, I just talked myself into it. BEST COACH: John Fox, Carolina
1. Who's really the quarterback in Tampa Bay?
The depth chart says Byron Leftwich, so, for now, Byron Leftwich. After a 1-6 start heading into the bye week, however, head coach Raheem Morris will have no reason to pretend his team can contend and will throw rookie Josh Freeman to the wolves. Freeman won't fare any better (in fact, he'll most likely be worse), but the schedule becomes more favorable and should allow the Bucs to notch a few more wins. So is Freeman the answer the team has been searching for since Brad Johnson? Freeman's career 59% completion rate at Kansas State says no. And while he's big and athletic, Josh is no Ben (Roethlisberger). Those comparisons emerged only because Morris, a young, black coach (just like Mike Tomlin!), drafted Freeman, and the media loves to assume that all young, black men are the same guy (like Chad Johnson and Chad Ochocinco. Different last name, bird brains!).*
*Although, Byron Leftwich would be backing Freeman up, just like he did last year with Big Ben, so maybe they're on to something...No, no, no. Morris looks nothing like Omar Epps. Morris and Tomlin are definitely different guys. Tomlin and Epps, though...
2. Will DeAngelo Williams be the best player in fantasy football again?
I hope not, since I just took Adrian Peterson ahead of him. Williams should be pretty damn good again, especially with Jonathan Stewart dealing with a mysterious Achilles' injury that may keep him out for a week or for 2 months. The big concern has to be if Jake Delhomme can keep defenses honest; even with Steve Smith, I have my doubts. I know everyone has a bad game here and there (even in the playoffs), but Delhomme was Dan Marino-versus-Jacksonville bad.* Games like that are hard to shake from your conscience, and point to a future that is none too bright. Williams should be a top 10 fantasy back, but to expect a repeat (or even close facsimile) of last season would be folly.
*In case you didn't know, that was Marino's last NFL game.
3. Why aren't the Falcons picked to win the division?
Some people are born losers. Ricky Gervais's character in Extras, for example. Or Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunne. No matter what good thing seems to be happening, misery is always lurking around the corner. The Atlanta Falcons are born losers. Sure, they're not the through-and-through failures the Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Pirates or LA Clippers are, but the Falcons story is perhaps even more depressing. Never in the 42-year history of the franchise has Atlanta enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons. In 1998, the Falcons won a franchise record 14 games. They went to the Super Bowl. The offense was loaded, led by running back Jamaal Anderson and quarterback Chris Chandler. The following season, Atlanta fell to 5-11. Anderson's career was essentially ended by a torn up knee. In 2002, the Falcons returned to the playoffs behind superfreak Mike Vick. They handed the Packers their first playoff defeat ever in Lambeau Field. They were a team on the rise. Naturally, they went 5-11 the next season after Vick broke his leg in a preseason game. Bouncing back fairly quickly, the Falcons found themselves in the NFC championship game the next year after an 11-5, division-winning season. The season after that, momentum finally seemed to be carrying over , as Atlanta started 6-2. The wheels fell off in the second half, however; the Falcons lost 6 of their last 8 to finish out of the playoffs. During the late season fade, head coach Jim Mora openly lobbied for the University of Washington job (which he didn't get), and Mike Vick regressed as a passer, leading to questions if he really was the franchise player he had been anointed upon entering the league. Following the season, Mora was replaced by Bobby Petrino (we all know how that went) and Vick was arrested and imprisoned for dog fighting, leading to a depressing 2007 that saw games started at quarterback by Chris Redman, Joey Harrington, and Byron Leftwich. So after last year's miraculous bounce back season, I want to believe in Matt Ryan, and head coach Mike Smith, and Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Turner. But I can't. History tells me Ryan will take a step back. Turner will succumb to the curse of 370. Gonzalez will finally start to age. Smith will be tested for the first time by an off the field incident. And before anyone can figure out what happened, Atlanta will be 5-11, giving directions to a bus full of Hawaii Tropic models.