The rest of the NFC South shit the bed last year, and the Bucs reaped the benefits, with sexy results. A team that went 4-12 in 2006 rebounded with a division title, and they did it without any superstars on either side of the ball.
Jeff Garcia arrived in Tampa to put a stop to the 8 quarterback insanity that had reigned at that position for the Bucs recently. He wasn't spectacular, but he was an extremely good game manager, throwing only 4 interceptions the entire season. Cadillac Williams went down with what might be a career ending injury early in the year, but Earnest Graham stepped in and had over 1200 all purpose yards. Finally, Joey Galloway continued to defy the aging process to post a 1000 yard season and serve as the Bucs lone big play threat, but a very effective one.
The main reason for the Bucs success though, was the defense. The D ranked in the top 10 in the league in Y/A against both the run and the pass, as they played the Tampa 2 to perfection, which only makes sense since the friggin defense is named after them right?
Things went so well last year that the Bucs are bringing back pretty much the same bunch this year. For now. Of course, anyone who has been following the Brett Favre melodrama know that the Bucs are at the top of the list of teams Favre might be headed to. That would be a bad move for the Bucs. This is a team that relies on ball control, game management, and not turning the ball over. Jeff Garcia does all those things better than Favre. Garcia has been an underrated QB throughout his career and he should have another good year if the Bucs keep him as their starter.
Cadillac is probably not going to play this year, which means Earnest Graham remains the starter. He looked like a diamond in the rough last year, so the Bucs should be good to go with him.
The defense is youngish and pretty rock solid. They could have used a little help with the pass rush, but they are counting on that coming from last year's 4th overall pick Gaines Adams making a big step forward from the six sacks he had last year.
HERE'S YOUR FORECAST
This is a team whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but it's also a team that overacheived last year, partly because the rest of the division was in the bell jar. The Bucs will play hard and be in the thick of the playoff race this year, but I don't think that they have that extra razzle dazzle to propel them back into the postseason. Call it 8-8 or 9-7 with a near miss at the playoffs.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
A lot of people, me included, picked the Saints to go to the Super Bowl last year. That didn't turn out so good. An 0-4 start put the Saints in a gaping crevasse, and even though they won 4 in a row right after that, the loss of both featured running backs (Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush) proved to be too much to overcome as the Saints stumbled to a 7-9 finish and missed the playoffs.
In addition to losing 2 of their marquee offensive players, the Saints were saddled with a horrendous defense which ranked dead last in the league in passing Y/A. The secondary was memorably torched by Peyton Manning in the season opener and never recovered, while the front seven failed to generate any kind of pass rush and was only mediocre at stopping the run.
The Saints had 2 areas in which they were atrocious last year, running the ball (29th in Y/A), and as I pointed out earlier, stopping the pass.
They are banking that the return of Bush and McAllister will solve that first problem. That theory is questionable though. McAllister had microfracture surgery and may never be the same, while as for Bush, replace the "h" in his last name with a "t" and that's what he's pretty much been so far in his 2 year career. Pierre Thomas turned some heads late in the season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry after Bush went down, and for all we know could end up the feature back again if shit doesn't turn out as planned.
While they may struggle to run the ball, the Saints make up for it with one of the best passing offenses in the game. Drew Brees had a little bit of a down year last year but is still one of if not the best QB in the NFC, and he's now got two of the most dangerous weapons in the league to throw to in 1202 yard receiver Marques Colston, and newly acquired veteran TE Jeremy Shockey. Remember, Brees and Antonio Gates had a nice thing going in SD, so the acquisition of Shockey should be a good fit for this team.
Meanwhile, the defense may still be weak in the secondary, but they did a lot to shore up the front seven this year, particularly up the middle. They signed LB Jonathan Vilma from the Jets, who is coming off an injury but is still young and was one of the best before getting hurt, and grabbed DT Sedrick Ellis with the seventh overall pick in the draft. The Saints defense won't be setting any records this year, but I don't think they'll rank dead last in any category either, and that would be an improvement.
HERE'S YOUR FORECAST
You can be a flawed team, which the Saints are, and still win the NFC South. The Saints and the Bucs are really the only 2 teams capable of doing so this year, and I think if the Saints offense can stay healthy, their defense should be improved enough to not totally screw things up again. I'm not predicting any Super Bowls this year, but I think 10 wins and a playoff spot is do-able.