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NFC South Preview

NFC South Preview

NFC South Preview
By Joe Nelson

The NFL draft gets all the attention in the spring but the recent release of the 2014 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the NFC South in this schedule preview. The South featured two playoff teams in 2014 with a big rise for the Panthers and a big fall for Atlanta. This should be a competitive division again as in the 12-year history of the division there has never been a repeat champion with all four teams taking three titles each.

Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons went 13-3 in the 2012, falling just short of the Super Bowl in a tough NFC championship loss to the 49ers. With a much tougher schedule and some key injuries, the Falcons took a big fall in the standings last year, going just 4-12 in 2013 and winding up as one of the most disappointing teams in the NFL. Atlanta was the worst rushing offense in the NFL last season and one of the worst defensive teams, particularly against the run. Seven losses for the Falcons came by seven or fewer points last season, including each of the first four losses of the season, so Atlanta was not far from being a much more competitive team in 2013. The Falcons did not win a game by more than eight points, however, getting an overtime win and a one-point win among the season’s four victories.

Heading into 2014, Atlanta has been limited in free agency with several highly paid veterans on the roster and Atlanta draws a third place schedule as they ‘won’ the tiebreaker with Tampa Bay, who also finished 4-12 last season. With the entire South playing the NFC North, the difference is playing the Giants and Cardinals instead of the Redskins and Rams. The NFC South plays the solid AFC North teams meaning four fairly tough games and the Falcons have the Bengals and Ravens on the road, likely the more difficult of the draws. Atlanta will also play at Green Bay late in the season and the Falcons only have seven home games in 2014, surrendering a home date to play the Lions in London. In addition to the long travel overseas, Atlanta will play three sets of back-to-back away games on the year with substantial travel overall this season. Getting off to a good start will be critical for the Falcons, but with the Saints and Bengals in the first two weeks, that could be a challenge and the Falcons also have a daunting closing schedule playing Arizona, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Carolina in the final five weeks. It will be tough for Atlanta to be as bad as it was in 2013, but a huge improvement also seems unlikely with this slate.

Atlanta Falcons 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .512 (11/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 9 road/neutral games (includes London): 9,452
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 2 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Monday Night)

Carolina Panthers: 2013 was the breakthrough season for the Carolina Panthers with head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton delivering a division title after some serious struggles the previous two seasons. The Panthers were 7-1 at home last season and 5-1 in the division, but they lost at home in the playoffs against San Francisco. The first place schedule does mean that the Panthers have to play the Seahawks, but that game will be in Charlotte this season. That matchup will come in a grueling mid-season run of tough games as Carolina has a very challenging early season schedule. The Panthers will play nine consecutive games against teams that won at last seven games last season starting in Week 2, and the toughest stretch features back-to-back road games at Cincinnati and at Green Bay, followed by home games with Seattle and New Orleans and then a Monday night game in Philadelphia. It would not be a surprise if the Panthers had as many losses as all of last season by mid-season as most of the big games come in the early part of the schedule. That does mean that five of the final six games of the season will come against teams that had a losing record last season.

Carolina has the latest possible bye week coming in Week 12, which could add to the toll of the early season schedule and the Panthers were a team that won five games by four or fewer points last season, something that will be difficult to replicate. That included narrow wins over the 49ers, Patriots, and Saints late in the season and Carolina will need more big wins against marquee opposition to contend for the playoffs again in 2014. Four of Carolina’s six games against 2013 playoff teams will be on the road but Carolina does not have long travel miles ahead with no west coast games on the schedule. The Panthers should be a competitive team but a few bounces may fall the other way this season and the tough early slate might send the Panthers back to being closer to a .500 team.

Carolina Panthers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .473 (22/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (two home, four away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 5,159
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 3 (1 Thursday Night, 1 Sunday Night, 1 Monday Night)

New Orleans Saints: In what felt like a transition season with the Saints getting head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines and with Rob Ryan taking over the defense, the Saints managed to go 11-5 and earn a Wild Card spot. Despite a challenging travel situation, New Orleans won in Philadelphia on the road in the playoffs before losing to the eventual Super Bowl champions in Seattle. New Orleans was the only team in the NFC to go 8-0 at home last season and getting back to the top of the division and earning home field advantage will be a priority if the Saints have another Super Bowl run left in the Drew Brees era. In terms of 2013 win percentage, New Orleans will face the weakest schedule of the four teams in the NFC South and the Saints will only play one road game against a 2013 playoff team, playing division rival Carolina in Charlotte in a mid-season Thursday night game. That game comes in a tough situation following up a Sunday night tilt with the Packers, but the home date in the series with Panthers will be a favorable situation for the Saints as it will be the second of back-to-back road games for Carolina.

New Orleans will not play a team that had a winning record in 2013 until Week 8 as the Saints should be in position to get off to a great start and emerge as one of the teams to beat in 2014. New Orleans does open with three of the first four games on the road, but they get to catch Cleveland and Minnesota in the first three weeks, teams with coaching transitions that could feature some growing pains early in the season. Four of the first six games of the season for the Saints will come against a new coaching staff, a huge advantage over the rest of the division that will play most of those teams later in the schedule. The Saints have an early Week 6 bye, which may not be ideal for an older team, but New Orleans also only plays one 2013 playoff team in the final six weeks of the season. The meat of the schedule starts in late October with consecutive games against Green Bay, Carolina, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore, although only the division game against the Panthers in that run will be on the road. With its toughest games at home and one of the best home field edges in the league, this slate lines up well for the Saints to return to prominence in the NFC. New Orleans also only plays back-to-back road games once and that run comes in the first two weeks of the season when the team might be in a better position to handle it. Overall, the Saints have one of the better looking schedules among all of the expected NFC contenders.

New Orleans Saints 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .469 (23/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 5 (four home, one away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 6,571
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1
Primetime Games: 5 (1 Thursday Night, 2 Sunday Night, 2 Monday Night)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Given that Lovie Smith is a veteran coach that featured a strong track record despite his firing two seasons ago, many expect Tampa Bay to be the team with a new coaching staff that could deliver success right away. The Buccaneers have a talented receiving corps and made some big moves in free agency, but there are still questions on what was a terrible defensive team against the pass last year and with the quarterback situation led by Mike Glennon and the least productive passing offense in the NFL from 2013. There were many distractions last season in a 0-8 start to the season for the Buccaneers, but several of the losses came in tight defeats against high quality teams. The Buccaneers only won once on the road last season, but most of the toughest games out of the division in 2014 will come at home.

Tampa Bay will have to play three straight road games from Week 3 to Week 5 for a daunting travel run in early in the season and the closing slate is tough as well with the Panthers, Packers, and Saints in the final three weeks. Tampa Bay also plays four road games in five weeks late in the season including some potential cold weather games in November. The Buccaneers will know where they stand early with a division game against each team in the first five weeks with two of those games coming on the road. If Tampa Bay can survive a fairly tough six-game run to start the season before a Week 7 bye, they could emerge as a serious playoff contender. After the bye week, the Buccaneers play four straight games against teams that combined to go 16-47-1 last season before a fairly daunting closing schedule. Tampa Bay will be considered a sleeper for the playoffs with this schedule and at the very least improvement by multiple wins over last season seems very possible in 2014.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2014 Schedule Numbers:
2014 Opponents Win Percentage in 2013: .484 (19/32)
Games vs. 2013 Playoff Teams: 6 (four home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 7,110
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3 (including a back-to-back-to-back)
Primetime Games: 1 (1 Thursday Night)

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Re: NFC South Preview

NFC South Betting Preview
By: The Linemakers

LAS VEGAS -- With the NFL season approaching, The Linemakers on Sporting News are taking a division-by-division look at what fans can expect in 2014. Here is the NFC South.

NFC South Division odds to win (LVH SuperBook):
New Orleans Saints 11/10
Carolina Panthers 11/4
Atlanta Falcons 11/4
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 13/2

Saints marching up ratings

The Saints opened last season as the No. 7 rated team in the Don Best/Linemakers Power Ratings and, spurred by Rob Ryan's drastically improved defense, finished the regular season No. 3, behind only Denver and Seattle. They covered their final three games of the season, including a 23-15 playoff loss at Seattle, where they were getting 9-points.

Strong at home, weak on road

The home-field edge was substantial for the NFC South, as the four teams combined to go 23-9-2 ATS in front of their own fans. None of the teams had a losing ATS record at home, and New Orleans (7-0-1 ATS) and Carolina (6-1-1 ATS) were dominant. On the road, each team has things to work, on as they went a combined 9-23 ATS, including a 1-7 ATS mark for the Saints, who failed to live up to their high rating away from home. The Saints also went 0-3 ATS in the regular season as an underdog, before covering at Philadelphia and Seattle in the playoffs.

AFC opponents

The NFC South had a tough go of it against the AFC East last season, coming out with a 9-7 record, and this season face the AFC North, a division that isn't as strong as it's been in the past. Playing at Cincinnati, a team that won and covered all eight regular-season home games last season, is going to be a tough task for Atlanta and Carolina.

What the books are seeing with futures

"We've had the most tickets and money written on the Saints to win the Super Bowl among NFC South teams," said MGM Resorts VP race and sports Jay Rood. "They're also one of the top-bet teams overall. We opened them at 20-to-1, and the cumulative action has forced us to drop them down at a few prices, and we're sitting at 10-to-1 now.

“The next most-bet team is the Falcons, who we dropped from an opener of 50-to-1 down to 35-to-1. They're also a team I like to bounce back big this season.

“Our biggest risk of all so far among the division is the Buccaneers, who we've dropped from 100-to-1 down to 30-to-1, and in the process of dropping them, we also raised the number on the Panthers from 20-to-1 up to 40-to-1, just because we don't have much action or risk on them at all."

Atlanta Falcons

Season win total (LVH): 8.5 UNDER -125

Super Bowl odds (LVH): 40/1

Key acquisitions: Javier Arenas (CB), Gabe Carimi (G), Devin Hester (WR), Bear Pascoe (TE), Paul Soliai (DT), Josh Wilson (CB), Jon Asamoah (OL), Dwight Lowery (S), Tyson Jackson (DE)

Key losses: Thomas DeCoud (S), Asante Samuel (CB), Kevin Cone (WR)

2013 record: 4-12

Trends to know: The Falcons may have won only four games last season and failed to cover the number in eight of their first 10 games, but they exceeded their massive rating drop in five of their last six games while winning just two of those games outright.

Of a more immediate matter, Larry Hartstein points out in his ‘100 Things NFL Bettors Should Know’ series that that Falcons coach Mike Smith “doesn’t prioritize winning in the preseason, as he’s 7-17 SU over six preseasons. He’s 10-13-1 ATS in those games, including 3-9 ATS the past three years.”

The Linemakers’ outlook: This season should be much better than last with hopes of having two healthy star WRs – Roddy White and Julio Jones – playing for most of the season. But there were deeper problems, and a winning record looks like a tall task when facing better defensive teams like the Saints and Panthers four times, and two more with the improved Bucs.

Carolina Panthers

Season win total (LVH): 8 OVER -150

Super Bowl odds (LVH): 40/1

Key acquisitions: Thomas DeCoud (S), Antoine Cason (CB), Ed Dickson (TE), Roman Harper (CB), Tiquan Underwood (WR), Jason Avant (WR), Jerricho Cotchery (WR)

Key losses: Mike Mitchell (S), Captain Munnerlyn (CB), Steve Smith (WR), Brandon LaFell (WR), Ted Ginn (WR), Domenik Hixon (WR), Jordan Senn (LB)

2013 record: 12-4, lost to 49ers in divisional playoff

Trend to know: Hartstein offers a valuable tidbit about the Panthers coming off a bye, writing, “In his three seasons as Panthers’ coach, defensive whiz Ron Rivera has done outstanding work with an extra week to study the opponent. Carolina has produced an 0-4 O/U mark off a bye, with the final score staying UNDER by an average of 12 points!

“Circle Nov. 30, when Carolina visits the Vikings off a bye."

The Linemakers’ outlook: They were 10th best in our power ratings last season, mostly because of one of the best defenses in the league taking pressure off Cam Newton. Steve Smith is a huge loss of a playmaker, but the defense will get them at least nine wins this season.

New Orleans Saints

Season win total (LVH): 9.5 OVER -175

Super Bowl odds (LVH): 14/1

Key acquisitions: Jairus Byrd (S), Brandon Deaderick (DT), Champ Bailey (CB), Jonathan Goodwin (C)

Key losses: Charles Brown (OT), Brian De La Puente (C), Roman Harper (S), Lane Moore (WR), Tom Johnson (DE), Malcolm Jenkins (S), Will Smith (LB)

2013 record: 11-5, lost at Seattle in divisional playoff

Trend to know: Including the playoffs, the Saints are on a run of staying UNDER the total in eight of their last nine games. The other NFC South team that made the playoffs, Carolina, stayed UNDER in nine of their last 10 games.

The Linemakers’ outlook: With the help of Rob Ryan, Sean Payton made improvements with the defense last season, and it turned a usually reliable OVER team into an UNDER team (10 of 16 Saints games stayed UNDER) . They ended the season as our third highest-rated team. The defense should be even better this year, making at least 10 wins appear achievable. But there is a heavy price to pay to make that wager (-175), as most bettors agree the Saints will be the same or better than last season’s 11-win team. Their odds to win the Super Bowl have been dropped from 18-to-1 to 14-to-1 at the LVH. Let's see if the Saints can improve on the road, like they did at Philadelphia in the wild-card game last season, before we be them to win the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Season win total (LVH): 7 OVER -145

Super Bowl odds (LVH): 75/1

Key acquisitions: Evan Dietrich-Smith (C), Michael Johnson (DE), Alterraun Verner (CB), Josh McCown (QB), Clinton McDonald (DT), Anthony Collins (OT), Dane Fletcher (LB), Mike Jenkins (CB), Major Wright (S),

Key losses: Darrelle Revis (CB), Gabe Carimi (G), Ted Larsen (C), Adam Heyward (LB), Donald Penn (OT), Tiquan Underwood (WR)

2013 record: 4-12

Trend to know: The Bucs had one impressive stretch on the entire season last year, and it came in the month of November, when they covered all four games and won three outright (against Miami, Atlanta and Detroit). But their shining moment came in a 27-24 loss at Seattle, where they took the eventual world champs to overtime and easily covered the 16.5-point spread. However, the month couldn't be duplicated in December, as the Bucs closed with three-straight losses, where they didn't come close to covering a spread, part of the reason Lovie Smith is there now.

The Linemakers’ outlook: We like Lovie Smith to change the culture of the team and make them competitive right away. A 7-9 season should be considered a success and bettors who went OVER their early win total of 6.5 would cash. Playoffs? Maybe next year.

Linemakers best bets

Kenny White: "You can't go wrong with the Saints to get at least 10 wins this season. There are definitely more polished on both sides of the ball than any of the teams within the division. The defense made major strides last season, and I expect that to continue through this season.

“I'm not too high on the Bucs’ chances to get OVER seven wins; Josh McCown is just an average quarterback at best, and I don't think he'll prosper in an offense outside of what he got to do in Chicago last year. Lovie is going to slow it down.

“If Atlanta can protect Matt Ryan and he's got his healthy receivers, they could do some good things like we saw in the past, when they were one of the best teams."

Micah Roberts: "I think we'll have the same level of separation from the upper- to lower-half of the division like we saw last season. I fully expect the Saints and Panthers to be battling for the South and for both to get OVER 10 wins apiece. You can count on good defense with those two.

“I don't see enough improvements with Atlanta to believe they can win more than seven games.

“In the end, I see the Saints winning the division with a chance late in the year at playing meaningful games for home field in the playoffs.”

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Re: NFC South Preview

NFC South Outlook
By Tony Mejia

Division winner

Order was restored last season with Sean Payton reinstated following a one-year suspension for Bountygate that saw New Orleans fall to 7-9, offering further proof that he's among the NFL's elite head coaches. His renowned organizational skills and the preparation he puts into game plans has helped produce four consecutive double-digit win totals. The Saints have 48 victories over the last four seasons he's been at the helm, which includes capturing Super Bowl XLIV as an underdog. After finishing one game behind Carolina in 2013, look for Payton's team to claim their first NFC South title since 2012. The Panthers won't be as consistent as they were last season, and while Tampa Bay and Atlanta will be better, no one seems to be in New Orleans' class.

Drew Brees has familiar weapons Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas and Kenny Stills back, not to mention intriguing rookie wideouts Brandin Cooks and Brandon Coleman. Rob Ryan is a quality defensive coordinator who has had an impact helping to shore up the team's biggest weakness, which helps make them a legitimate Super Bowl contender. New Orleans was within a possession of the defending champion Seahawks in Seattle for much of the fourth quarter of the divisional playoffs as the No. 6 seed. With a better draw and a little home field advantage, they can do serious damage come January.

Projected order of finish

1) New Orleans
2) Carolina
3) Atlanta
4) Tampa Bay

Go over with

While the Saints getting over 10.5 wins is the recommendation, has the Panthers total available at 7 ½, which seems like an immense trap. We know Carolina won't be a division power and is unlikely to be a playoff team again, but to go from 12 wins to sub-.500 seems drastic. Don't fall in. The defense will do the heavy lifting, counting on Cam Newton to play Emeril Lagasse and make chicken salad out of those offensive pieces. Even if they're successful and get to 8-8 or 9-7, it's going to be a grind. Up front, it won't help matters that Jordan Gross retired, but having center Ryan Kalil anchoring the line means they should be successful. Newton has to replace Steve Smith and deep threat Ted Ginn, but he'll find a few pieces to develop great rhythm with, relying on timing patterns to methodically move the chains. The Panthers will scrap for everything they get, which may appeal to their fan base, but not to your sanity when the possibility of riding with New Orleans to get to 11-5 exists. I just didn't want to write about the Saints here, so went the cautionary route instead.

Go under with

The Buccaneers could also surprise, going from 4-12 to possibly .500 in Lovie Smith's first season. They need everything to go smoothly in their transition to a new system and new quarterback in Josh McCown, but projection of 7 seems about right. That leaves Atlanta, given the extra wiggle room at 8 ½, as the friendlier option.

The Falcons will be better. Losing Tony Gonzalez hurts, but Julio Jones will remind people just how great he is. The offensive line, if healthy, should provide ample time and space to execute. Even with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon out another season, there's talent on the defense, especially along line especially up front. They'll be able to get pressure. Still, there's a stretch you probably don't want to get caught up in, because there's little room for error. From September 28 to November 16, Atlanta will have exactly one home game. Chicago comes into Georgia Dome on October 12, and a scheduled "home" date two weeks later against Detroit will actually be played at London's Wembley Stadium. The Vikings, Giants, Ravens, Lions, Bucs and Panthers aren't murderers row, but when you're playing all of them on their turf, or overseas, with only one lengthy bye in between, it's very easy to fall into a bad spell. It also puts great pressure on Atlanta to take care of its home turf. Expecting them to more than double last season's win total seems demanding.

Games to watch - September

Sept. 7 - New Orleans at Atlanta: Let's see just how far apart these teams are out of the gate and give the Falcons homefield just to make it even more interesting. Hopefully, both get through preseason in good health and we get a show. In spite of last season's win discrepancy, both meetings were one-possession games that were decided late when the Saints defense held.

Sept. 7 - Carolina at Tampa Bay: We get to see just how both are planning to score right out of the gate. The Panthers outscored the Bucs 58-19 in 2013's sweep. Lovie's home debut, and probably McCown's, comes against an opponent that has terrorized them. Can another making his first official appearance at Raymond James, top pick Mike Evans, dazzle to help pull an upset?

Sept. 14 - Detroit at Carolina: Regardless of how the Tampa game turns out, this is going to tell us a lot about the Panthers. Can they stop a dynamic offense like old times? Score just enough, or somehow find a way in a shootout? After their highly anticipated opener in Charlotte, will they be 2-0? 1-1? 0-2?

Sept. 14 - St. Louis at Tampa Bay: The Rams are a playoff hopeful looking to continue their ascent, but a second straight home game gives the Bucks an opportunity to position themselves as the NFL's surprise team after Week 2.

Sept. 18 - Tampa Bay at Atlanta: Week 3 begins with a Thursday night battle to see which team has come the farthest. Considering what we covered above regarding the odyssey that awaits the Falcons after this game ends, it's vital they get this one.

Sept. 21 - Pittsburgh at Carolina: Though they've closed out every preseason since 2003, this Sunday nighter will match the Steelers and Panthers for the first time since 2010. Expect it to be a pivotal game for both, guaranteeing a physical battle fueled by two of the toughest quarterbacks in the game to bring down.

Sept. 28 - Atlanta at Minnesota: Atlanta's road warrior mentally would have to start developing here against one-time defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in his second home game as Vikings head coach. Since it has arguably the toughest opening three-game stretch of anyone (at St. Louis, vs. New England, at New Orleans), Minnesota isn't likely to go down quietly.

Sept. 28 - New Orleans at Dallas: Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan got revenge against his former employer in a 49-17 rout last November, watching Drew Brees carve up the Cowboys for an NFL-record 40 first downs and a franchise-best 625 yards. He'd love to go into Jerry World and have his defense put on an equally impressive showing in Week 4's Sunday night game.

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