The Playoff Picture and the Cowboys (Part III- NFC South)

While the NFC West and NFC North look like the divisions most likely to produce a playoff opponent for the Dallas Cowboys, the NFC South appears to be headed for a down year despite the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers off-season improvements.

The Saints are still recovering on defense from the bounty scandal and losing out on a 2nd round pick in the 2013 draft. New Orleans appears to have a problem at one of their tackle spots even if small school stud Terron Armstead starts for them.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have problems in their secondary and an aging offensive line that struggled to open holes in 2012 for a running game that excelled in 2011. It isn't clear if Ted Ginn Jr. and the other receivers can pick up the slack for a declining Steve Smith in Carolina. Making matters worse is that the Panthers have a very tough schedule to look forward to this season. Until the Panthers can improve their secondary and offensive line, they're likely to struggle. Only Cam Newton playing absolutely lights out gives them a shot at making some noise.

The Bucs meanwhile, have put together the best secondary in the division through the draft and by trading for All-Pro cornerback Darrel Revis. While the Bucs' have an excellent running game featuring Doug Martin, their primary problems are uncertainty along the offensive line and quarterback Josh Freeman's turnover-prone ways. In any case Freedman has Mike Glennon pushing him this season so he may perform better than last year.

ATLANTA FALCONS 12-4 NFC South winner, 1st round bye

Season summary:

Atlanta appears to have the easiest path to the Super Bowl of any contender -- but that’s why they play the games. The Falcons still have a few depth issues in their secondary and a pass rush that could stand to improve. Nonetheless it’s a passing league and the Ryan-White-Jones combo combined with Stephen Jackson closing out games should propel them into the playoffs once again. The question is will they have the toughness to make it all the way to the Super Bowl. My guess is they lose in the playoffs again, without a return to the NFC title game. Out of all the teams the Cowboys match up well against in the playoffs taking on Atlanta in the Dome would be my preference.

1 09/08 SUN @NO W 34 - 30 1-0
Dirty Birds beat their biggest division rivals
2 09/15 SUN STL W 31 - 24 2-0
Feisty Rams put up a fight, pressure Ryan until late
3 09/22 SUN @MIA L 27 - 26 2-1
Fins pressure Ryan, hand Falcons first loss of the season
4 09/29 SUN NE L 30 - 27 2-2
Super Bowl preview? Maybe not
5 10/07 MON* NYJ W 33 - 17 3-2
The Jets begin their 'suck for Clowney' campaign
6 10/13 SUN BYE
7 10/20 SUN TB W 26 - 13 4-2
Falcons beat down Bucs, pick off Freeman often
8 10/27 SUN @ARI W 24 - 23 5-2
Peterson battling Julio Jones all day. Get your popcorn ready
9 11/04 MON* @CAR L 36 - 31 5-3
Kitties pull off biggest upset of their season. Falcons stumble
10 11/10 SUN SEA W 33 - 28 7-3
Seahawks pressure Ryan in this playoff game preview
11 11/17 SUN @TB W 27 - 17 8-3
Bucs just lack the weapons to keep up with Atlanta
12 11/24 SUN NO L 31 - 30 8-4
Saints edge Falcons in a barn burner
13 12/01 SUN @BUF W 37 - 23 9-4
The Bills suck, badly need more pass rush and E.J. Manuel to develop fast
14 12/08 SUN @GB W 36 - 31 10-4
Packers top Dirty Birds in NFC title game preview?
15 12/15 SUN WAS W 29 - 17 11-4
Falcons hand Skins a late season loss that hurts their playoff hopes
16 12/23 MON @SF W 34 - 30 11-4
Falcons motivated for this one after last year's NFC title loss
17 12/29 SUN CAR W 30 - 26 12-4
Panthers are pretty much done by this point with Rivera on his way out the door

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 8-8 2nd place finish, miss playoffs for second consecutive season

Season summary: Rob Ryan's 'confusing' defense is the biggest question mark for this team, along with some turnover along the offensive line. The offense should keep humming and in fact might be better in the running game this year. I do foresee a few embarassing losses though, possibly to the Rams or even the Bucs. If the Saints stay healthy on D and Ryan's defense actually works than perhaps we'll know that it was our personnel all along that did Ryan in here in Dallas.

1 09/08 SUN ATL L 34 - 30 0-1
The Dirty Birds grudge match. I think Atlanta takes this one.
2 09/15 SUN @TB W 30 - 27 1-1
Freeman has best game of the year but Bucs still fall
3 09/22 SUN ARI W 33 - 27 2-1
Saints outscore Cards at home
4 09/29 SUN MIA L 27 - 23 2-2
This is where the toughest part of the schedule bites
5 10/06 SUN @CHI W 34 - 23 3-2
Da Bears don't have firepower to keep up with Saints
6 10/13 SUN @NE L 37 - 30 3-3
High scoring shootout of a game, but Brady tops Brees
7 10/20 SUN BYE
8 10/27 SUN BUF W 41 - 23 4-3
Saints win in a blowout over hapless Bills
9 11/03 SUN @NYJ W 38 - 20 5-3
NOLA outscores everyone in this two week mid-season peak
10 11/10 SUN DAL L 30 -27 5-4
Saints come into Dallas game cocky. Romo torches Rob's new mob
11 11/17 SUN SF L 36 - 27 5-5
Niners D has this one circled on the calendar, you can be sure
12 11/24 SUN @ATL W 31 - 30 6-5
Saints get one back against their high scoring rivals
13 12/02 MON* @SEA L 32 - 24 6-6
Seahawks D sacks/pressures Brees all day
14 12/08 SUN CAR W 32 - 29 7-6
Kitties continue their swoon as Saints outscore them
15 12/15 SUN @STL L 34 - 33 7-7
Stunning loss demoralizes Saints locker room
16 12/22 SUN @CAR W 36 - 33 8-7
Kitties lose another shootout
17 12/29 SUN TB L 29 - 27 8-8
Saints come out listless and have their playoff hopes buried

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 6-10 3rd place in division

1 09/08 SUN @NYJ W 27 - 17 1-0
The Jets suck, and the Bucs handily win the Revis bowl
2 09/15 SUN NO L 30 - 27 1-1
Bucs lose one that sets tone for more disappointment
3 09/22 SUN @NE L 33 - 20 1-2
Pats go 4-0 against NFC South this year
4 09/29 SUN ARI L 27 -23 1-3
Cards pressure Freeman into too many mistakes
5 10/06 SUN BYE
6 10/13 SUN PHI L 23 - 20 1-4
Eagles are still better than the Bucs at this point
7 10/20 SUN @ATL 26 - 13 1-5
Dirty Birds deliver a beat down, Freeman a TO machine again
8 10/27 SUN CAR W 30 - 26 2-5
Bucs rally to beat Kitties in Florida
9 11/03 SUN @SEA L 23 - 9 2-6
the game when Josh Freeman finally gets benched
10 11/11 MON* @MIA L 27 - 23 2-7
Fins take the Florida AFC-NFC bowl
11 11/17 SUN ATL L 27 - 17 2-8
Bucs hit low point of the season as Glennon struggles
12 11/24 SUN @DET W 24 - 23 3-8
Lions are even worse than the Bucs at this point
13 12/01 SUN @CAR W 27 - 24 4-8
Bucs shut down Newton's receivers, sweep the Panthers
14 12/08 SUN BUF W 27 - 19 5-8
Bills suck almost as bad as the Jets, bring on E.J. Manuel
15 12/15 SUN SF L 24 - 13 5-9
Niners shut down Bucs run game, pressure Glennon all day
16 12/22 SUN @ STL L 25 - 23 5-10
Fisher wills his team to a late season victory
17 12/29 SUN @ NO W 29 - 27 6-10
Bucs stun the Saints to split the series

CAROLINA PANTHERS 4-12 last place in NFC South, coach Ron Rivera fired

1 09/08 SUN @SEA L 30 - 27 0-1
Battle of two mobile QBs, but Seagulls the better D
2 09/15 SUN @BUF W 38 - 24 1-1
Kevin Kolb stinks it up, fans chant we want E.J. Manuel
3 09/22 SUN NYG L 34 - 16 1-2
Giants roll over Panthers again, surrender big plays to Eli
4 09/29 SUN BYE
5 10/06 SUN @ARI L 32 - 30 1-3
Cards outrush and outpass rush Panthers in the desert
6 10/13 SUN @MIN L 25 - 17 1-4
Vikings pass rushers in Newton's face all day
7 10/20 SUN STL L 27 - 23 1-5
The abysmal protection continues as Newton sacked often
8 10/27 SUN @TB L 30 - 26 1-6
Bucs' Martin finally gets going in 2nd half against tired Panthers D
9 11/03 SUN ATL W 36 - 31 2-6
Falcons outscore Newton despite his best game of the year
10 11/10 SUN @SF L 27 - 17 2-7
Carolina fans once again groan about their offensive line
11 11/17 SUN NE L 33 - 27 2-8
Pats offense too much for Carolina secondary in this one
12 11/24 SUN @MIA W 27 - 23 2-9
Protection is better but defense gives up late Tannehill strike
13 12/02 MON TB W 27 - 26 3-9
Bucs steal one in Carolina when kicker shanks late FG
14 12/08 SUN @NO L 32 - 29 3-10
Panthers still can't get enough pressure on Brees
15 12/15 SUN NYJ W 31 - 17 4-10
Jets' 'suck for Clowney' campaign in full swing
16 12/22 SUN NO L 36 -33 4-11
Saints enter late season swoon
17 12/29 SUN @ATL L 30 - 26 4-12
Falcons complete the sweep

So to summarize:

Atlanta 12-4 NFC 2nd seed first round bye -- but still because they're a dome team the squad I think we could match up with best in the playoffs if our D is healthy (perhaps Minnesota too, if they beat out the Bears for a playoff spot). Going on the road to Chicago, Green Bay or Seattle in January is probably a recipe for being one and done.

New Orleans 8-8 another disappointing year in the Big Easy. I just don't see Rob Ryan's D coming together well enough to put this team in the playoffs and their depth along the offensive line is not what it used to be.

Tampa Bay 6-10 bad QB play ruins a solid season for this impressive defense and rushing attack.

Carolina 4-12 What happened here? Don't blame Cam Newton, the secondary still needs safety help, and Newton needs a stud no. 1 WR to replace Steve Smith

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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