What a disappointment the NFC South has been this year. Some have called it the worst division in football, with all four teams currently under the .500 mark. This division is shaping up to finish like the NFC West in 2010 when the Seattle Seahawks won the division with a 7-9 record.
1. New Orleans Saints (4-6)
Overall Grade: C+
Offense: Lead by one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, the Saints offense ranks 3rd in the NFL, with Drew Brees leading the NFC with 2,816 passing yards. Brees has been a bit careless with the ball at time, throwing an interception in all but two games this season, and losing two fumbles along the way. However, Brees is a super-bowl winner and one of the best quarterbacks of his time, and is having a good year with 18 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
Brees favorite target continues to be all-pro tight end Jimmy Graham. Graham leads the team in receptions (56), receiving yards (594), and touchdowns (7). 2014 1st round pick Brandin Cooks has made a huge splash in the NFL, catching 48 passes for 500 yards and three scores.
Saints running back Mark Ingram missed three games in the middle of the season, but since returning he has been lethal. Ingram currently has three consecutive 100 yard games, averaging 128 yards per game in that three game span,.
Defensively, the Saints have been a below average group, ranking 16th in the NFL in total defense. At times, the defense looks very good; such as holding the Packers steady in a 44-23 win. But other times have gotten shredded; like giving up 38 points to the Cowboys and 37 against the Falcons, both in losing efforts. Junior Galette and Cameron Jordan have been able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback, combining for 11 sacks so far this season. Keenan Lewis has stood out in the defensive secondary, defending a team-high 11 passes.
For the Saints, they will start with three consecutive games against the AFC North, beginning with a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. They obviously don’t have to play perfect football, but if they can win their two key division games remaining against the Panthers and Falcons, they will find themselves hosting a playoff game in January.
2. Carolina Panthers (3-7-1)
Overall Grade: D+
Offense: Cam Newton aka “Superman” has not been the explosive quarterback we’ve been accustomed to seeing. Newton is only averaging 233 yards passing per game this season, and hasn’t been much threat on the ground either, averaging just 29 yards per game (despite rushing for just his 2nd 100 yard game of his career against the Bengals). Newton has thrown for 2100 yards with eight interceptions to just 12 touchdowns (2 rushing).
Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin has been outstanding this season, replacing Steve Smith Sr. as the no. 1 target in the Carolina offense. The rookie leads the team with 659 yards and seven touchdowns. Tight end Greg Olsen has also been dangerous in the passing game, leading the team with 51 receptions and has tallied 658 yards and five scores thus far.
Remember when the Panthers had one of the most deadly rushing games in all of football? Well, it’s not 2009 anymore and the combo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart hasn’t done much this year. Both have been plagued by injuries in the recent years, and 2014 has been no different. Stewart has missed three games, and is the Panthers leading rusher with just 299 yards. Williams has missed six matchups this year, only rushing for 167 yards.
On defense, the Panthers have been abysmal, ranking 31st overall. The only constant on the defense has been pro-bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, who leads the entire NFL with 105 total tackles.
It’s been a head scratching year for the Panthers, losing five games this season by 18 or more points. After a promising 2-0 start, the Panthers have gone 1-6-1 and are currently on a four game losing streak. Looking ahead, the Panthers have six games left, five against teams with sub. 500 records, and four of them against division opponents. If they want to repeat as division champions, Carolina has to find an identity on both sides of the ball, and win in their division. A 7-8-1 record at the end of the year isn’t asking much overall, and could just get them back in the playoffs.
3. Atlanta Falcons (4-6)
Overall Grade: D
Offense: The Falcons hold one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. After averaging 34 points per game during their 2-1 start, the Falcons have went the last six games only averaging 19 points per contest. Quarterback Matt Ryan has engineered an offense ranked 10th in the NFL, throwing for 2,525 yards and 16 touchdowns. Atlanta welcomed back standout wide receiver Julio Jones from injury, he leads the team with 61 receptions for 853 yards and three touchdowns. Fellow wide receiver Rhoddy White hasn’t had the enormous production he is used to having, only catching 39 passes for 491 yards, but he does lead the team with four touchdowns.
The Falcons have tried to get it done with veteran running back Steven Jackson, but the 31-year-old has only been able to rush for 426 yards. Fifth-year back Antone Smith has provided some spark in the backfield, averaging 6.3 yards per carry but has only given 23 touches on the ground.
On defense, the Falcons have struggled, ranking 29th in the NFL overall and a league worst 32nd against the pass. Atlanta is one of the worst teams at getting after the quarterback, totaling only 11 sacks all season. Kroy Biermann has been a lone bright spot on the unit, with seven tackles for loss this season.
The Falcons sit in the same boat as the two teams in the division above them, just have to win. Amazingly, this season is far from over, even after a 3-6 start. Sitting just one game out of the division lead, they will still play the Panthers twice and the Saints once to finish off their year, all three seem like must win games at this point.
Sine being one play away from a Super Bowl birth in 2012, the Falcons have went 7-18, which has head coach Mike Smith’s job in jeopardy.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-8)
Overall Grade: D-
Offense: Josh McCown was sent to Tampa Bay to be their starting quarterback. However, McCown only lasted three games as the starter, going 0-3 while throwing just two touchdowns to four interceptions. He was replaced by Mike Glennon, who was able to win the Bucs their lone game of the season over the Pittsburgh Steelers, but wasn’t much of an upgrade. Last week, Glennon was benched to give McCown another shot under center. From here on out, who knows who will be taking snaps for the Buccaneers.
Whomever the quarterback, rookie Mike Evans has performed well, leading the team with 585 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Vincent Jackson has played all season with trade rumors surrounding his name. Jackson leads the team with 40 receptions (one more than Evans), but hasn’t made the most out of the team-high 90 targets he’s received (27 more than Evans).
Remember when Doug Martin ran for 1,454 yards in his rookie season? Yeah me too! Martin since then has been injury prone and has not produced. In 2013, he missed 10 games due to injury and has only played in five games this season, averaging just 2.9 yards per carry in 2014. Bobby Rainey leads the team with 388 yards on the ground, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
Defensively, like the rest of the division, it’s has been a train wreck. They rank 27th in the NFL, allowing just under 400 yards per game. Lavonte David has been everywhere on defense, his 103 tackles ranks second in the NFL, and has 15 tackles for loss. Defensive lineman Gerald McCoy leads the team with five sacks.
For Tampa Bay, questions remain all around the organization and first year coach Lovie Smith. There is very little chance this team will not finish in the cellar of their division, so you got to think about where they will draft in 2015. Which position do you draft? Quarterback? Running Back? Defensive Back? This organization needs answers.
Offensive MVP of the First Half: TE, NO Jimmy Graham
Honestly with the Saints offense being the no. 1 unit in the NFC, you had to know this award will go to either Graham or Brees. I decided to give the tight end some love because this season, he has been unstoppable, and is open every play no matter who is on him.
Defensive MVP of the First Half: LB, CAR Luke Kuechly
Hard to deny how good Kuechly has been this season, and every year in his young career. He leads the NFL in tackles and is the heart and soul to a defense that is one of the leagues worst.
Comeback Player of the First Half: RB, NO Mark Ingram
Sine missing a month early in the season, Ingram has responded with three straight 100 yard rushing games and is only 51 yards away from setting his career high in rushing yards in a season.
Letdown of the First Half: QB, TB Josh McCown
After being paid big money to be the Buccaneers starter, McCown wasn’t able to revive the magic he had as the Bears starter in 2013, throwing just two touchdowns to four interceptions and losing his first three games before being benched. However, McCown has a chance to statistically turn his season around, as he was named the starter last week and will most likely stay that way until the end of the season.
Cover Photo: Getty Images
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