From wearing paper bags over their heads to having a parade that rivaled the decadence of Mardi Gras, the city of New Orleans has had quite the shift in outlook over the last forty-five years. A dramatic victory over a favored Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV sets the tone for an interesting title defense.
While other teams like Green Bay, Indianapolis, Baltimore, and the New York Jets are geared up to try and knock the New Orleans Saints off of their perch, there’s little chance that someone the Saints’ own division will do the job. The champions should clear this roadblock with ease.
QUESTION ONE: CAN THE NEW ORLEANS SAINTS REPEAT?
Of course the Saints can repeat. It’s not necessarily “they will”, but it’s “they can”. Drew Brees is still Drew Brees until someone proves different, and he’s still a force that can make you or your dog into a competent wide receiver. Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas will still light the fuse for the running game, even with Mike Bell moving north to Philadelphia. Even without their short-yardage fail safe in Bell, Brees can more than compensate with another likely 4,000 yard season. Until the defense completely fails, or the offense sputters, the Saints are still considered a heavy favorite.
Defensively, the Saints caught a break when Darren Sharper decided to have a career year and poach nine passes for picks. Tracy Porter emerged as a clutch player, and was the catalyst for the Saints making, and then winning, the Super Bowl with two of the most well timed interceptions ever. Thing is, the Saints have lacked a serious pass rush. To fix this, New Orleans acquired Bears mainstay Alex Brown this offseason. Brown doesn’t put up insane sack numbers, but is a good disruptor to have. Other than Brown, the defense is unchanged and could use some more luck.
QUESTION THREE: WILL THE ATLANTA FALCONS BOUNCE BACK?
It’s hard to say where Atlanta’s going to end up. Matt Ryan came back to earth last season after a stellar rookie year in 2008, and Michael Turner was bitten by the injury bug hard last year. Defensively, the Falcons have been less than impressive the last five years, but the addition of Dunta Robinson is intriguing, though his poor attitude is an albatross. If anything, 2009 rookie Peria Jerry will finally get to play after not doing so last season due to injury. In general, there are just so many questions, and the Falcons are difficult to key on.
QUESTION FOUR: IS EVERBODY OVERLOOKING MATT MOORE?
The Carolina Panthers couldn’t unload Jake Delhomme fast enough, and why not? Moore looked impressive last season, going 4-1 as a starter, with eight touchdowns against only two picks. It’s a comfortable offense that he has surrounding him, so long as Steve Smith avoids serious injuries. I doubt you’ll see Jimmy Clausen much this year, making this resemble Cleveland’s situation in 2007, with Moore playing the role of Derek Anderson. Something tells me Moore won’t be the slouch that Anderson ended up being, and this would make Clausen a good trade chip down the line. Carolina has no need to panic.
QUESTION FIVE: CAN IT GET WORSE IN TAMPA BAY?
So let’s get this straight: Tampa fires Jon Gruden after a horrible finish in 2008; a year in which the Bucs were 14th in offense and 9th in defense. After handing the keys to glorified assistant Raheem Morris, the offense fell to 28th and the defense went to 27th. Uhh, what? The Bucs also made very few moves this offseason, instead collecting Philadelphia’s table scraps in Reggie Brown and Sean Jones. Other than drafting perennial starter Gerald McCoy, there’s little reason to be optimistic. If Morris can make it to season’s end as head coach, you can color me surprised.
1. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (13-3)
Are you really shocked? The Falcons have promise and so do Carolina, but New Orleans is basically the same team as a year ago, minus Mike Bell and Scott Fujita. They’re the same Saints who frustrated quarterbacks with secondary mismatches, and frustrated opposing secondaries with an incomparable Drew Brees. The number one offense of the last two seasons, and no one has come close to figuring them out. The issue is if the Saints are unable to wreak turnover havoc again this year. If New Orleans concedes a pick for a touchdown once more per game, they are proven mortal.
2. CAROLINA PANTHERS (9-7)
Call this a bit of a shocker. Matt Moore taking over for a foul-stenched Jake Delhomme will work wonders, and the defense has a chance to become even greater. Granted, the loss of Julius Peppers looks bad on paper, but this opens the door for rookie Everette Brown to make his bones. Peppers was beginning grow stale, and his heart wasn’t into it (he’d wanted to leave one year earlier), so a revolving door of Brown, Tyler Brayton, and Charles Johnson could be deceiving. As long as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are healthy, the Panthers should turn out ok.
I mentioned earlier that there were too many issues with Atlanta to guess their outcome, so let’s play it safe and put them in the middle. Matt Ryan can erase a disappointing 2009, but perhaps his downturn last year was from other teams figuring him out. To rid himself of growing pains, he needs to step up his game. If Michael Turner’s injuries linger, the pressure is heavier. Ryan also needs a stronger output from his pass defense to relieve the pressure, and hopefully Dunta Robinson can spark things. This may be the year Tony Gonzalez begins to truly deteriorate.
4. TAMPA BAY BUCANEERS(2-14)
Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, somebody throws you a shovel. No one envies Josh Freeman one bit, as he has to make sense of a motley crew of an offense. At least he has Kellen Winslow at his disposal. Aside from him, he has an oft-hurt Carnell Williams, an overrated Derrick Ward, an underachieving Reggie Brown, and an unknown in rookie Arrelious Benn. On defense, Ronde Barber can’t hold up forever, but at least there’s a year or two for him to lead before Gerald McCoy becomes the defensive face. Until then, it won’t be smooth sailing.
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