The best of what is this season’s worst division (so far) is the Who Dat crew in the Bayou. After starting the season 1-3, concluding with an embarrassing SNF loss to the Cowboys, the Saints have been 3-1 in their last 4 games and are starting to look like their 2009 selves again. The Saints still have a high powered offense and issues on defense. Jimmy Graham has been nicked-up, but rookie Brandin Cooks has been a revelation and just what Drew Brees needed; another fast receiver with great hands. Mark Ingram has also started to justify his draft status, averaging nearly 5 YPC and providing some balance to a potent offense.
At 4-4, the Saints have an open road to the playoffs in a division with 3 other teams that are deeply flawed. This may be a case of not needing a complete, great team to win in a division containing 3 other bad teams.
What to Watch For
The next 4 weeks. The Saints play the ‘niners and the rest of the AFC North not in Cleveland (a team they already lost to), finishing at Pittsburgh on 11/30. They then finish up against the other bad teams in the NFC South and a cold weather game in Chicago on 12/15. The Saints have to go at least 2-2 in November to put them in the pole position for an NFC South title.
If they do end up winning the division with a 7-9 record (quite possible), the Saints would have an NFL "circle of life" moment by hosting a playoff game against a wild card team with a (presumably) winning record. The circle of life moment would be perfected if the Saints knocked that team out of the playoffs. In 2011, this is exactly what the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks did to the #5 seeded Saints at the conclusion of Seattle winning the NFC West in 2010 with a losing record and hosting a game on Wild Card Weekend.
After taking their turn in winning this division last year, the Panthers have come back to earth with a pretty good thud. The 2014 regression for the Panthers falls under the definition of "self-inflicted wounds". After letting virtually their entire receiving corps go, probably a huge error in the case of Steve Smith, they have also suffered more from the suspension list than the injured reserve list.
At 3-5-1, they have not looked too good so far in 2014, but did find a gem in Kelvin Benjamin with their 1st round draft pick. The team is getting healthier and Cam Newton is showing that his selection in 2011 as the first overall pick was not a mistake. In a truly weak division, the Panthers are certainly not out of this thing yet.
What to Watch For
The MNF Football game in Philadelphia on 11/10 and the home game against the Browns on 12/21. These are the only two games against teams with winning records on the Panthers schedule. If Riverboat Ron can figure out how to get his defense playing better, this team does have a shot at pulling out a second straight divisional title.
Fozzy Whittaker landed here after his release from the Chargers and the Browns. He started one game this year, as the Panthers were dealing with injured RB’s. He has 9 carries, 25 yards and 1 TD for his 2014 stat line.
Through the first 4 games of 2014, the Falcons were a Jekyl and Hyde team. Dr. Jekyll liked home cooking; scoring 93 points in two games while allowing 48. Mr. Hyde emerged on the road, scoring a pedestrian 38 points in two games while allowing 65. I leave it to you to figure out where the two wins and two losses happened. That trend stopped in October, as Atlanta posted a perfectly wretched 0 for October, are "riding" (or more accurately, being ridden by) a 5 game losing streak, and have become just as bad in the Georgia Dome as they are on the road.
The primary issue is the defensive side of the team (dead last in yards allowed), although ranking near the bottom of the league in rushing attempts (because running has not really worked in 2014) is not helpful either. At 2-6, with the team’s hardest games coming up (Cardinals, Browns, Packers, and Steelers). Two other games are divisional roadies in New Orleans, and Florida to face an angry Tampa Bay team. The Bucs are probably bent on reclaiming their man cards from a 56-14 embarrassment on TNF. Put all together, it is conceivable that the dirty birds finish 2014 with a filthy 2-14 record.
What to Watch For
Mike Smith surviving the season. Arthur Blank has showed a twitchy finger on the trigger of his head coach "You’re fired" gun in the past. Reports began to surface last week that it may take the team running the table and getting into the playoffs to keep Smith away from the unemployment line in January. With that possibility being remote, the real speculation here is if Mr. Blank pulls a Davis Special and rolls into December with an interim coach.
The Falcons starting TE, 23 year old Levine Toilolo, is on pace for a 30 reception, 300 yard season. In 2013, the 37 year old Tony Gonzalez caught 85 passes for 859 yards. Apparently, a 37 year old future HOF’er is 2.67 times better than a 23 year old still learning the game. Antonio Gates, we still love you!
Lovie Smith must be the envious talk of every senior center in Sarasota and West Palm Beach. While it is not unusual for a person to retire to Florida, it IS unusual for a man to be drawing a multi-million dollar payment for enjoying their golden years of leisure in the Florida sun. Plus, he gets free admission to 16 NFL games and unrestricted access to an NFL team’s facilities during his retirement. This is truly a retirement plan for the ages!
Smith participated in some, let’s say, unusual decisions since taking over, such as putting Josh McCown, a 12 year career back-up, in charge of an NFL offense. That choice was perhaps easier to make with Mike Glennon being the other option. In fact, Glennon announced earlier this week that he had been benched in favor of McCown for the upcoming grudge game at home against Atlanta. The 1-7 Bucs are averaging 3 losses a month (they had their bye in October) and have perhaps some winnable games on their schedule. Smith can perhaps be excused for some of his QB foibles, after all, he did coach a team that used Rex Grossman as their starting QB not too many season ago into a Super Bowl appearance.
What to Watch For
Lame-us for Jameis? Win None for Winston? With "suck for Luck" working out really well for the Colts, and with Jameis Winston, the best QB prospect (in terms of potential NFL size and skill set) since Andrew Luck playing up the road in Tallahassee, the decision to return to McCown as your starting QB has some suspicious timing about it. Especially given the Bucs next game, against Atlanta, which was McCown’s last game in September, a 56-14 beat down of a humiliating crap fest. Perhaps Bryan Glazer gave some marching orders to GM Jason Licht and Coach Smith that 4-12 may not get the team the franchise QB he wants.
With the selection of Mike Evans at #7 overall last May, Tampa Bay started a run of WR’s selected in this division. The Saints followed with Brandin Cooks (20) and Carolina followed with Kelvin Benjamin. Based on both traditional and non-traditional metrics, all three teams have gotten good value for their picks so far this season.
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