A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.
Final Power Ranking: 5
Biggest surprise: Wide receiver Robert Meachem said in the preseason this would be the year he showed the world why the Saints took him in the first round in 2007. A lot of people rolled their eyes at that one because Meachem had been a big disappointment in his first two seasons. But the man came through on his word. Meachem turned into a big-time player for the Saints. He scored nine touchdowns, showed very good hands and made things happen after the catch. Most of all, Meachem earned the trust of quarterback Drew Brees. He’s only going to keep getting better.
Biggest disappointment: There weren’t many in a 13-3 season. But you have to be a little concerned about the way the defense played over the second half of the season. After starting so well under new coordinator Gregg Williams, the defense slowed in its turnover production, in stopping the running game and had trouble with some ordinary passing games. Maybe things will go back to the way they were as the Saints get everybody healthy during the bye week. But recent indications leave questions about how much Williams really improved this defense.
Biggest need: With Charles Grant getting older and injured for the playoffs, the spotlight starts to turn another defensive end: The Saints have a pretty good one in Will Smith. But they could use another consistent pass-rusher who would cover up any problems in the secondary.
Team MVP: Brees. You can make a strong case for him as the league MVP. Even though that honor probably will go to Peyton Manning, who grew up in New Orleans, most people in New Orleans will swear that Brees is the real MVP.
Best move not made: The Saints talked about signing Edgerrin James or drafting Beanie Wells. They did neither and that turned out to be a brilliant move. The Saints went with a combination of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, and coach Sean Payton made a strong commitment to the running game that paid off.
Final Power Ranking: 15
Biggest surprise: The schedule. The NFL handed the Falcons one of the league’s toughest schedules, including games against a bunch of teams coming off their byes. In some ways, it might have been payback for a light load in 2008, but it also seemed like the Falcons ran into a lot of teams when those teams were playing their best football of the season.
Biggest disappointment: The running game, which was so dominant in 2008’s playoff season, struggled with consistency most of the year. Just when it seemed as if Michael Turner was starting to get back to last year’s form, he got hurt and missed a lot of playing time down the stretch. The Falcons need to determine why Turner struggled and they have to address the reasons in the offseason. If Turner wasn’t in shape or wasn’t running well, it might be time to bring in an alternative. If the problem was with the offensive line, the Falcons need to go out and upgrade it.
Biggest need: A pass rush. Veteran John Abraham dropped off dramatically and no one else really stepped up. The Falcons need to get help for Abraham and an heir apparent. You could also say there are big needs in the secondary, but I don’t think they’re quite as dramatic. The old adage is that the best pass defense is a good pass rush. The Falcons need a better pass rush than they had this year.
Team MVP: Curtis Lofton. In his second season, and with some good guidance from veteran Mike Peterson, the second-year linebacker emerged as an on-field force and leader of a defense that got better as the season went on. Lofton became an every-down linebacker this year and anchored a run defense that allowed only one running back to run for 100 yards, and that was New England’s Fred Taylor in Week 3. Lofton didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but Atlanta’s coaches will tell you he played at that kind of level. If he keeps doing that, he’ll end up in the Pro Bowl when the Falcons become a playoff team.
Remember the rookies: A lot of people want to call general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s second draft a bust, especially since his first one was so great. But that’s not fair or accurate. The top two picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, went down with season-ending injuries before they really had a chance to make an impact. In Jerry’s limited time, you could see he was going to be a difference-maker. He’ll have to make that difference a year later than expected.
Final Power Ranking: 18
Biggest surprise: Julius Peppers. After making noise about wanting out of Carolina in the offseason, Peppers wound up sticking around. Somewhat out of character, Peppers showed up on a pretty consistent basis and was dominant at times. Of course, it might be argued Peppers was only showing up so he could earn himself a big contract somewhere else. That might be the truth.
Biggest disappointment: I still haven’t figured out what happened to quarterback Jake Delhomme. No, he never was Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But for a very long time, he did a nice job of managing games and being reliable for Carolina’s ball-control offense. But Delhomme started throwing interceptions in bunches for no apparent reason. His performance ended up looking even worse when backup Matt Moore came in and actually had some success. We still don’t know for sure if Moore is good enough to be Carolina’s starting quarterback, but it’s painfully obvious Delhomme isn’t that anymore.
Biggest need: A quarterback. Let’s be real honest here. Moore did some very good things and he could end up being the answer. But has he really shown enough for us to know that for certain? No, period. At very least, the Panthers have to bring in a quarterback capable of competing with Moore for the starting job. This team has too much talent and John Fox has too much on the line not to have another strong option at quarterback.
Team MVP: Linebacker Jon Beason. Peppers had some big games, but Beason was a steady force on a defense that ended up being the best in the NFC South. He had 142 tackles and made some big plays. Beason wasn’t too happy when he was snubbed by Pro Bowl voters. He’s got a good point –- and he’s got plenty of motivation now.
What the heck?: There wasn’t a more stunning move off the field in the NFC South than owner Jerry Richardson firing sons Mark and Jon just before the season started. The Richardson brothers had largely been running the day-to-day operations of this team for a long time. We probably will never know the full story, but it’s safe to say the Richardson brothers had a major clash and their father thought it was so divisive that the franchise would be better off without them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Final Power Ranking: 30
Biggest surprise: Oh, man, where do I start? This team had all sorts of surprises and most of them weren’t good. I guess I’ll go with the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski about a week before the regular season started. It was followed by claims Jagodzinski wasn’t organized and that his playbook was basically a pamphlet. If all that’s true, how did Raheem Morris miss the warning signs as he did his homework?
Biggest disappointment: Again, there are plenty of possibilities. But I’m going with receiver Antonio Bryant. He had a huge season last year and the Bucs placed the franchise tag on him. It meant he didn’t get a long-term contract, but it also meant he made about $10 million a season. The basic message from the Bucs was, “go out and show us you can do it one more time and we’ll reward you’’. Instead of doing that, Bryant did little for much of the year and, then, had the nerve to point the blame at just about everyone but himself. Umm, that’s not how you get a long-term deal. Good luck in free agency.
Biggest need: A defensive tackle. Yeah, there are needs just about everywhere, but this one is easily the biggest. Sad part is, it was the biggest need last offseason and, other than drafting Roy Miller in the third round, the Bucs didn’t address this. It was an obvious problem in the final month of Jon Gruden’s last season and the Bucs somehow decided Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims were the answer. They can’t think that this time around.
Team MVP: Josh Freeman. The rookie quarterback played only about half a season, but he’s the reason Morris is keeping his job. Freeman made some rookie mistakes, but he also had some moments of brilliance. At those times, it made you wonder what this kid can do with some real wide receivers to throw to.
Let’s finish with something positive: Easy -– Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs took a shot on the wide receiver, who had some personal problems in college, in the seventh round. Stroughter turned out to be their best receiver and a pretty good return man. So no, not every move the Bucs made was a disaster.