Nfc South

September 05, 2002|By Team previews by Ken Murray

Atlanta Falcons

Last season: 7-9, fourth place, NFC West.

Coach: Dan Reeves (178-149-1), sixth year with Falcons, 22nd year in NFL.

Story line: Is QB Michael Vick ready to be a starter and does he have enough weapons to be successful in this offense?

Power game: With the addition of RB Warrick Dunn in free agency and power RB T. J. Duckett, the Falcons should have a reasonable running game. The only problem is that Dunn was promised 20 to 25 carries per game, a workload he is unlikely to realize with Duckett on board. Achilles' heel: The passing game, which ranked 17th a year ago with QB Chris Chandler, is conspicuously short of deep threats. The Falcons signed free agent Willie Jackson right before camp and he will help, but the team doesn't have enough talent at wide receiver to scare anyone.

Pressure's on: Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Falcons were 30th in total yards and passing yards allowed last season. Under Phillips, they have switched schemes from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Phillips is an excellent coordinator and figures to make the Falcons' defense competitive quickly.

Ticket to San Diego: After making so many changes in the off-season, the Falcons are looking down the road beyond San Diego.

Carolina Panthers

Last season: 1-15, fifth place, NFC West.

Coach: John Fox (0-0), first year with Panthers.

Story line: Can Fox, as a rookie coach, resuscitate a team that won its opener, then lost the next 15 games a year ago?

Power game: The defensive coaching staff should be pretty good, between Fox and Jack Del Rio, the new coordinator. Fox came from the Giants and Del Rio from the Ravens, so they both have strong pedigrees. In DE Julius Peppers and MLB Dan Morgan, they've got potential Pro Bowl defenders.

Achilles' heel: On a defense that has holes everywhere (the Panthers ranked last in total yards and rushing yards), they have a critical need for an upgrade at cornerback. They will have to scheme to protect their corners this season. Pressure's on: Offensive coordinator Dan Henning. He will start Rodney Peete, 36, at quarterback in the opener over Chris Weinke. His best running back, DeShaun Foster, fumbles a lot, and his offensive line is not very good. That's a bad combination to overcome.

Ticket to San Diego: The Panthers are nowhere near that stratosphere just yet, but they have put down some solid building blocks.

New Orleans Saints

Last season: 7-9, third place, NFC West.

Coach: Jim Haslett (17-15), third year with Saints.

Story line: Are these Saints like the 2000 playoff team that eliminated the Rams or the 2001 team that quit on Haslett last December?

Power game: With rookie Donte Stallworth and veteran Jerome Pathon joining Joe Horn at wide receiver, the Saints' passing game should be better than last year (when it ranked 10th), despite losing Willie Jackson. QB Aaron Brooks has great potential (26 TD passes last year) but still has a lot to learn (22 interceptions).

Achilles' heel: There is a question of heart with this team. The Saints were in the mix for a playoff spot last season, but lost their last four games by a whopping margin of 160-52. GM Randy Mueller cleaned house in the aftermath, then got fired himself.

Pressure's on: RB Deuce McAllister. The second-year veteran got only 16 carries as a rookie behind Ricky Williams, but now he's being asked to replace a 1,200-yard rusher. He needs to justify his first-round selection in 2001.

Ticket to San Diego: This might be a darkhorse team in the NFC. If McAllister and Brooks come through, the Saints could be very tough.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last season: 9-7, third place, NFC Central. Lost wild-card game to Philadelphia, 31-9.

Coach: Jon Gruden (38-26), first year with Bucs, fifth year in NFL.

Story line: With Gruden and a new receiving corps, have the Bucs made enough improvement on offense to become a legitimate Super Bowl candidate?

Power game: The defense remains the backbone of a playoff roster, but time is running out for some of these players. DT Warren Sapp talked a better game than he played a year ago and needs a comeback season for the Bucs to have a dominant defense again.

Achilles' heel: Splitting carries between Dunn and Mike Alstott, the Bucs' running game ranked a miserable 30th. Replacing Dunn is Michael Pittman from Arizona. Gruden's offense will be vastly different from Tony Dungy's conservative schemes, but he'll still need a dependable runner.

Pressure's on: QB Brad Johnson. The veteran threw only 13 TD passes last year and needs to prove he can still lead a viable passing game.

Ticket to San Diego: A return to strength by the defense is necessary for a serious playoff run, but the offense has to hold up its end as well.

MVP candidate

WR Keyshawn Johnson, Bucs

Impact rookie

De Julius Peppers, Panthers

Best Pickup

Coach Jon Gruden, Bucs

Biggest loss

QB Chris Chandler, Falcons

Most vulnerable

Coach Dan Reeves, Falcons

Best comeback

DT Warren Sapp, Bucs

STAFF PREDICTIONS

Jamison Hensley

Bucs

Falcons

Saints

Panthers

Ed Lee

Bucs

Saints

Falcons

Panthers

Brent Jones

Bucs

Falcons

Saints

Panthers

Ken Murray

Bucs

Saints

Falcons

Panthers

Mike Preston

Bucs

Saints

Falcons

Panthers

* -- wild-card team, ALL CAPS -- NFC champ, GRAY -- Super Bowl winner

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