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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, August 19, 2011 at 9:34 AM

The Atlanta Falcons team that takes the field Friday Night in Jacksonville on FOX-TV is going to have a lot on its plate this year. Not only will they have to deal with the bounce-back New Orleans Saints in their boomerang year after a Super Bowl letdown...

*They'll have to deal with the surging Tampa Bay Bucs who were one of the great stories of the 2010 season.

*They'll have to deal with lingering doubts about this team's true championship potential when they faceplanted as the #1 seed in the NFC last year in a home field loss to Green Bay.

*They'll have to deal with a five-game gauntlet to start the season that features four playoff teams (including Chicago and Green Bay) and 10-6 Tampa Bay. Oh, Indianapolis and New Orleans pop in too before Game 10.

So, as you watch the Falcons and Jags tonight on TV, don't just think about the talent level in Atlanta. Think about their ability (or inability) to deal with the hurdles in their regular season path. The NFC South could prove to be very tough. Even 2-14 Carolina should be better. Let's crunch the numbers from last year to see what might be in play for this season...

2010 FINAL NFC SOUTH STANDINGS
Atlanta: 13-3 (+14 turnovers, 18th schedule)
New Orleans: 11-5 (-6 turnovers, 25th schedule)
Tampa Bay: 10-6 (+9 turnovers, 23rd schedule)
Carolina: 2-14 (-8 turnovers, 14th schedule)

Its hard to call Atlanta a fluke last year. They played about a league average schedule, and certainly did a lot of things very well. It's easy to forget though that they won some nailbiters that they very easily could have lost. They were more like an 11-5 team last year in the big picture, which helps explain why they lost at home to Green Bay in the playoffs. Once the Packers got healthy, they were more like a 12-4 type team.

New Orleans has some skeletons in the closet that are worth noting. The Saints played a soft schedule, but lost the risk-reward element anyway. This was a stark turnaround from the year before. You can't take the Saints seriously as a championship threat until they start playing sharp again. Last year was very sloppy. With the playoff loss at Seattle turning into quite a debacle.

Tampa Bay had a slightly easy schedule. Were they plus in turnovers because of brains, or good fortune? We won't know that until we see things play out in the first half of this year. There are indicators suggesting Tampa Bay was more pretender than contender. But, when you have a young coach and quarterback learning the ropes...there can be improvement from year to year. Fascinating team!

Some data from our favorite stat indicators...

OFFENSIVE DRIVE POINTS PER GAME
New Orleans 14.4
Atlanta 13.9
Tampa Bay 10.9
Carolina 6.3
Notebook: Drive Points are those from drives of 60-yards or more. We exclude cheap points off turnovers and non-offensive touchdowns. League average last year was around 12. So, the Saints and Falcons were good (near the top of the NFC, but below the AFC offensive juggernauts). Tampa Bay was below average. Carolina was hideous in a lost season. The Panthers hope #1 draft pick Cam Newton can help ignite a new era. We're skeptical. But, we were skeptical of Vince Young when he first game out, and he sure gave opponents headaches in the years before he gave his teammates headaches.

DRIVE POINTS ALLOWED PER GAME
New Orleans 9.3
Atlanta 9.5
Tampa Bay 9.6
Carolina 10.1
Notebook: You didn't hear a lot about the defenses of the NFC South. Look at how all four held opponents to below average totals. Sure, getting to face Carolina a couple of times helps. Actually, Carolina may be the best of the four defenses once you adjust for quarterbacks! They never had the pleasure of facing themselves. The New Orleans defense never had to deal with Drew Brees. The Atlanta defense never had to deal with Matt Ryan. We're looking at four above average defenses here. They don't scare you like the Jets or Steelers. They deserve more respect than they were getting.

OFFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
New Orleans 49%
Atlanta 47%
Tampa Bay 42%
Carolina 30%
Notebook: Drew Brees knows how to move the chains. This is always a great indicator stat for experience. It's a great sign for Ryan that he's moving the chains so well at a young age. That suggests a big career ahead. Tampa Bay's not bad considering the inexperience they brought to the 2010 campaign. Remember that 40% was the midpoint last year for the league. That's why it's easy to get excited about this division except for Carolina. We're talking about offenses who can move the chains, and defenses that weren't allowing too many long distance points.

DEFENSIVE THIRD DOWN PERCENTAGE
New Orleans 35%
Carolina 38%
Atlanta 39%
Tampa Bay 43%
Notebook: Good stuff here, except for Tampa Bay. They're certainly a team that can improve with experience in this regard. Many think of New Orleans has having a soft defense. They sure know how to disrupt opponents when a drive is on the line. More evidence that the media and YOU should pay more attention to the defenses in this division. The media loves quarterbacks. ESPN is calling 2011 "The Year of the Quarterback" even though quarterbacks are always important and there's nothing particularly new about how QB's influence results in 2011 compared to 2010 or 2009. Sure, Peyton Manning faced Drew Brees in the Super Bowl a couple of years ago....but NOW is the year of the quarterback! Brett Favre vs. John Elway? Nope. Ancient history. NOW is the year of the quarterback!

Anyway, you can have some fun with QB's in your fantasy leagues. Just remember that the NFC South plays more defense than you may have realized.

2011 NFC SOUTH OUTLOOK

It's usually NOT safe in the NFL to just assume that what happened last year is going to happen again this year. New Orleans couldn't win the division after their Super Bowl season. Tampa Bay surged to respectability in the face of national skepticism. What zigs and zags are we going to see this year?

  • The ATLANTA FALCONS are very likely to drop back from 13-3 based on what football history tells us. They caught some breaks last year, and the schedule is going to be tougher.

  • The NEW ORLEANS SAINTS are in a bounce-back year...but they'd better not flirt with a negative turnover differential again. And, an easy schedule helped hide some problems in 2010. You can't just assume New Orleans jumps right back up to 12-4 caliber or better because the hangover wore off.

  • The TAMPA BAY BUCS made such a big jump last year that regression is most likely. NFL history shows that ups and downs are much more likely than gradually climbing a ladder. The problem is...when a ladder is climbed...it's because young talent is improving with experience. Tampa Bay is obviously a team that could trump the regression trend as a result. Really, anything from 6-10 to 11-5 wouldn't surprise us with this team, with 8-9 wins seemingly a reasonable expectation barring injuries.

  • We haven't talked much about the CAROLINA PANTHERS today. There not likely to be much of a story unless Cam Newton really does inspire a dramatic turnaround. It's tough to expect much from a new coach/new quarterback combination in a division where the other three teams have legitimate playoff hopes. We'll discuss the Panthers in the NOTEBOOK when they earn their way in!

That wraps up our look at the NFC South. We head back to the colleges for the weekend, with a preview of the MAC East on Saturday and the MAC West on Sunday. It's back to the NFL Monday for the NFC North to get you ready for Chicago at the NY Giants on ESPN's Monday Night Football. We'll be through six of the eight divisions by that point. We'll finish things off next Thursday and Friday on other NFL TV nights.

If you haven't signed up already for JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK, we invite you to do so now. You can take care of business with your credit card right here at the website. If you have any questions about full season programs, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.

The NFC South had a world champion two years ago, and just might again this year if powers in other divisions don't keep their eye on the ball. JIM HURLEY IS THE UNDISPUTED WORLD CHAMPION OF HANDICAPPING, and HE DEFENDS HIS CROWN EVERY YEAR!

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