The arrow is pointing up for half of the NFC South teams, and it’s the opposite story for the other half of the division after one game. A rookie quarterback stunned the Saints, and the Panthers had their buzz killed by the Buccaneers. The Falcons were the most impressive team of the group in Week One.
Here is our weekly team-by-team take on the state of the NFC South:
What we learned: The Falcons are not going to back their way into the season like they did last year. Dropping 40 points on the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium was a strong statement by Atlanta, which was blown out by the Bears at Soldier Field to open the 2011 campaign. The Falcons capitalized off of excellent field position throughout the game, and QB Matt Ryan was sharp. The defense played opportunistically in the second half, forcing three turnovers, but it did allow some big plays and Kansas City converted 11-of-16 third downs. Given their ability on offense, the Falcons are a team that can make up for defensive miscues.
What’s in store next: The Falcons will prepare to host their home opener — a battle against the Broncos in prime time on Monday night. The last time the Falcons faced a Manning, it didn’t go so well — Eli and the Giants knocked them out of the playoffs in the wild-card round last season. In Denver’s Week One win over the Steelers, Peyton Manning did not look like a quarterback that had not played in a game of consequence in about a year and a half. This game figures to be an excellent test for the Falcons.
What the heck? The Falcons and CB Brent Grimes are probably asking themselves a variation of that question Monday in light of the unfortunate news that Grimes — a huge part of their defense — is out for the season with an Achilles injury. Yes, the Falcons have good depth at corner. Asante Samuel, who can slide into the starting spot at left corner, and Dunta Robinson are healthy and still can be a very capable tandem. But defensive coordinator Mike Nolan loved the idea of having all three corners to unleash in the nickel package. Atlanta has to change its plans now, and backups like Dominique Franks, Chris Owens and Robert McClain have an opportunity to become move involved on defense.
What we learned: Those skeptical about the Panthers’ chances of taking a big step in QB Cam Newton’s second season have reason to stick to remain doubtful. Carolina lost to Tampa Bay by only six points, but it was outplayed in just about every phase of the game. The defense showed improvement from last season, but it failed to force a turnover and allowed the Bucs to set the tone with two 13-play scoring drives in the first half. The Panthers’ offense was out of sorts and the problem started with the offensive line. This was supposed to be one of the league’s best front fives, but it consistently lost battles against Tampa Bay’s aggressive front seven.
What’s in store next: Carolina will play its home opener Sunday against the Saints, who should be looking to take out their frustration after a stunning loss to the Redskins at the Superdome in Week One. The Panthers have lost the last four meetings with the Saints, and Drew Brees racked up 748 passing yards and seven TDs in his two games against them last season. Carolina’s defense is in better shape this season, but the team is going to have to get its offensive issues figured out in a hurry if it’s going to be able to keep up with the Saints.
What the heck? … happened to Carolina’s vaunted running game? With RB Jonathan Stewart sidelined by an ankle injury, the Panthers could not find any holes. The Panthers ranked third in the league in rushing offense last season and first in yards per carry, and the Bucs ranked dead last in rushing defense in 2011. It was a completely different story Sunday. Carolina had more carries than rushing yards (13-10). The Panthers' longest rush of the day was only seven yards. RB DeAngelo Williams had six carries for minus-1 yard. The Panthers seem to have lost their offensive identity in the offseason and have an 0-7 record when Newton throws for more than 256 yards, as he did on Sunday (303 yards, one TD, two interceptions, sacked three times).
What we learned: The Saints are not so good that they can overcome a sloppy effort, even in the comfort of the Superdome. They turned the ball over three times, and failed to get any takeaways — a recipe for failure if there ever was one. The defense picked up where it left off last season, giving up far too many big plays and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo clearly has his work cut out for him. The offense turned it on late, scoring almost half its points in the fourth quarter, but it has to be more balanced and can’t get caught in so many 3rd-and-long situations. (They were 2-for-11 on third-down conversions.)
What’s in store next: The Saints will go on the road and try to bounce back against the Panthers on Sunday. New Orleans started the season 0-1 last season after falling to the Packers at Lambeau Field and went on to win four in a row after that, but the loss in Green Bay had a decidedly different feel to it than Sunday’s loss to the 'Skins. There will be plenty of talk about a downward spiral if they do not take care of business vs. the Panthers. Carolina gave New Orleans a scare at Bank of America Stadium in Week Five last season. The Panthers actually had the lead for most of the fourth quarter before the Saints scored a late touchdown for the win. New Orleans’ defense has to tighten up after allowing seven different Redskins receivers to make receptions of 20 yards or more.
What the heck? We realize the Saints were trailing for almost the entire game, but this is a team that has an embarrassment of riches at running back. They have to get more use out of the running game than they did Sunday. New Orleans ran the ball only 10 times — three times in the second half — and the ground game was ineffective on the rare occasion it was utilized (10 carries for 32 yards). RB Darren Sproles, who set a league record for all-purpose yards last season, did not even have a carry. Interim head coach Aaron Kromer, who has “running-game coordinator” in his title, has to work with offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to make sure balance is restored on offense.
What we learned: With first-year head coach Greg Schiano changing the dynamic in the offseason, the Bucs did not allow last season’s issues to linger into the 2012 season. They ended a 10-game losing streak by playing the brand of hard-nosed, efficient football that Schiano preached about all offseason. QB Josh Freeman looked more like the 2010 version and did not turn the ball over. It is early, but it looks like Tampa Bay is going to at least be tough to deal with on a weekly basis, which is a vast improvement from the second half of last season, when the Bucs were routinely embarrassed in blowout losses.
What’s in store next: The Bucs get their first chance to gauge where they stand against a consistent winner. They will hit the road to face the Giants, who will be well rested. New York has had plenty of time to think about its Week One loss to the Cowboys and get ready for the Bucs, who in some respects are modeled after the Giants. After all, Tampa Bay’s offensive coordinator, Mike Sullivan, was the Giants’ quarterbacks coach before Schiano hired him in the offseason and the defensive coordinator is Bill Sheridan, who served in that post for the Giants in 2009. The Bucs still have much to prove, and the Giants are eager to get back on track.
What the heck? Tampa Bay’s front seven has a couple former first-round picks in it with DT Gerald McCoy and DE Adrian Clayborn on the defensive line, but it’s short on star power. You would not have known it from watching the Bucs completely shut down Carolina’s run game, which ranked third in the league last season. Tampa Bay sacked Cam Newton three times and recorded nine tackles for loss. The Panthers were 2-for-10 on third down and could only muster a touchdown and a late field goal. The Bucs could be one of the league's most improved teams on defense.