NFC South: 2013 NFL Season Wrap NFC

Carolina Panthers season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
2:00
PM ET

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Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 23

Biggest surprise: "Riverboat Ron." Not often does a coach admit he needs to change, but Ron Rivera did after a 24-23 loss to Buffalo dropped Carolina to 0-2. He admitted he should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining and leading by three. He admitted he needed to show more confidence in his offense to make a yard and his defense to make stops. He went from one of the league's most conservative fourth-down coaches to one of the most aggressive, and added a nickname. He successfully went for it twice on the opening drive against Minnesota to start an eight-game winning streak. He went for it late on fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory to set up the winning touchdown against Miami. Carolina finished the regular season 10-of-13 on fourth-down attempts. Ironically, it was a failed attempt in the playoff game against San Francisco that led to the Panthers' 23-10 loss.

Biggest disappointment: The inability to win a home playoff game once again, which came in large part because of the team's late-season inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line in Sunday's playoff loss, and came away with no touchdowns. Four times they had an opportunity to score from the 1 and failed. Had they converted even one, it would have been a one-score game at the end, leaving open the possibility for a comeback. I'm still wondering why 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton didn't get the call on third down and less than 2 feet. You would think he could have jumped up and thrust the ball over the goal line.

Biggest need: If Newton is to have success as the team's franchise quarterback he needs to have more weapons. Outside of the aging-but-still-effective Steve Smith, and occasional moments from Ted Ginn Jr., he has none at this position. Brandon LaFell did little over the final three games to prove he should be re-signed as the team's No. 2 receiver. He could have been selected for the season's biggest disappointment. Don't be surprised to see the team address this position in free agency and the draft, which is heavy with receiver talent. It was obvious in the playoff loss against San Francisco that a major difference between Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was talent at receiver.

Team MVP: This is a tough one. Part of me says Greg Hardy, whose team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures were key to what the team does on defense. Not to mention he played every position along the defensive front at some point. But I have to go with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the league's second-ranked defense in tackles with 176. He is the brains and leader of this unit. His ability to cover some of the league's top tight ends as well as set the tone for stopping the run was invaluable. His 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against New Orleans in Week 16 helped keep the Panthers close enough to pull off a win that helped them clinch the NFC South title.

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New Orleans Saints season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
2:00
PM ET
video
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 6
Preseason Power Ranking: 14

Biggest surprise: Definitely the defense. Heading into this season, I was one of many who wrote that the Saints would be contenders this year if their defense could just get back to being a middle-of-the-pack unit after a disastrous 2012 performance. Instead, they were one of the NFL's best -- and they were the driving force behind several victories. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was as valuable as any coach in the league, bringing energy and innovative schemes that became especially important in the wake of several injuries. Cornerback Keenan Lewis was among the NFL's top free-agent additions. And young players such as end Cameron Jordan, outside linebacker Junior Galette and safety Kenny Vaccaro had breakout seasons that helped to instantly transform this unit.

Biggest disappointment: The road losses. OK, so we beat this storyline into the ground by the end of the season. But any other candidate you'd want to consider for this category (the run game, the turnover ratio, the pass protection, the run defense) only seemed to be a problem when the Saints played away from home. The dreary performances at the New York Jets and St. Louis Rams were especially disappointing. And it was so maddening to watch because every time the Saints played inside the Superdome, they looked like the new "Greatest Show on Turf." Ultimately, the Saints did prove they could win a big game on the road in the first round of the playoffs at Philadelphia. But their season ended a week later across the country in Seattle.

Biggest need: I'm torn between cornerback and offensive line. The Saints could use another top corner because Jabari Greer's future is uncertain after a major knee injury. But maybe that's their top want. They need to address the offensive line, because right tackle Zach Strief and center Brian De La Puente are unrestricted free agents. I actually think the Saints would be fine if they brought back the same starting five (they played much better down the stretch than people may realize). But I'm not sure the Saints can afford to bring both guys back. I could possibly see backups Bryce Harris or Tim Lelito stepping into those roles. But the Saints need to start restocking with young talent.

Team MVP: Sorry to be so obvious, but it's Drew Brees, who actually had one of the best seasons of his 13-year career. Everything from his yards (5,162) to his touchdowns (39) to his completion percentage (68.6) to his passer rating (104.7) to his low interception total (12) ranked among his three best performances since he has been in New Orleans. Behind him, I'd go with tight end Jimmy Graham. Even though he was kept quiet in the playoffs, his monster start was a huge reason the Saints started 5-0, and he barely let up after suffering a significant foot injury. Then it would be a tie between end Jordan and cornerback Lewis for leading the defensive revival.

 
Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 27
Preseason power ranking: 22

Biggest surprise: Tim Wright came to training camp as an undrafted wide receiver from Rutgers. He ended up as the starting tight end. That happened because a series of injuries left the Bucs in desperation mode at this position. But let’s give Wright some credit for quickly emerging as a legitimate threat in the passing game. He still has room for improvement as a blocker, but the Bucs might have found something special in Wright.

 Biggest disappointment: Entering the season, the Bucs thought this would be the year that Josh Freeman firmly established himself as a franchise quarterback. That didn’t come close to happening. Freeman was late for several team functions and that put him on coach Greg Schiano’s bad side. It didn’t help as Freeman struggled in the first three games. The Bucs turned to rookie Mike Glennon and eventually released Freeman.

Biggest need: The front office and coaching staff made a conscious decision to let defensive end Michael Bennett, who led the team in sacks in 2012, walk as a free agent. The thinking was that Da'Quan Bowers was ready to emerge as a pass-rushing force. But Bowers never emerged and Tampa Bay’s pass rush wasn’t very good. Rookie William Gholston showed some promise as the season went on, but the Bucs still need to upgrade the pass rush in the offseason.

Team MVP: There really are only two candidates -- defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. McCoy was outstanding, but I’m giving the nod to David. In his second season, David developed a knack for making big plays. People compared him to Derrick Brooks as soon as he was drafted by Tampa Bay. I thought that was a little premature, but I’m starting to think David can be the second coming of Brooks.

 

Atlanta Falcons season wrap-up

January, 2, 2014
Jan 2
2:00
PM ET

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 26
Preseason Power Ranking: 4

Biggest surprise: Paul Worrilow came to the Falcons as an undrafted rookie from Delaware just trying to make an impression on special teams. Injuries at linebacker gave him an opportunity to step into the lineup, and he proceeded to earn a starting job. His back-to-back 19-tackle performances against Carolina and Seattle made doubters start to take him seriously. Worrilow's ability to play multiple linebacker positions impressed the coaching staff. He reached double digits in tackles in six straight games from Weeks 9 to 14. He has become a better blitzer and improved his coverage skills, although Worrilow would be the first to say he still has a long way to go.

Biggest disappointment: The offensive line as a whole. Although the group lost Todd McClure to retirement, Tyson Clabo to the Miami Dolphins and Mike Johnson to a preseason injury, the line was expected to show improvement throughout the season. Such wasn't the case, at least not until the year was nearly over. Losing left tackle Sam Baker to season-ending knee surgery didn't help, although Baker obviously wasn't the same player he was last season before being placed on injured reserve. Tackles Lamar Holmes and Jeremy Trueblood, guard Garrett Reynolds and center Peter Konz were all benched at some point during the season. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter helped cover up the line's inability to pass block consistently by asking quarterback Matt Ryan to take shorter drops and deliver the ball quicker. But the Falcons couldn't mask the line's inability to run block. The Falcons have to upgrade the line either through free agency or the draft.

Biggest need: While the offensive line definitely needs to be addressed, the Falcons have an equally pressing need on the other side of the ball. Opposing quarterbacks had it rather easy this season as the Falcons failed to generate much of a pass rush. General manager Thomas Dimitroff no doubt has done his homework on possible pass-rushers capable of having an immediate impact as a disruptive force. Free agency could be an option, but the name most talked about is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the most physically gifted player in the draft. But draft positioning might be an issue if the Falcons desire to add Clowney. Dimitroff has rolled the dice in moving up in the draft before (see Julio Jones).

Team MVP: Is there any doubt? Tony Gonzalez opted not to retire in order to chase that elusive Super Bowl ring. When the Falcons became the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention, Gonzalez didn't sulk or regret his decision. He simply continued to go out and perform at a high level every day, showing the younger players what true professionalism is all about. Gonzalez played through the pain of a nagging toe injury and didn't miss a game. The only time he truly rested was when the Falcons went with an extra tackle and asked him not to block on certain plays. Despite facing double-teams throughout the season, the 37-year-old Gonzalez continued to find ways to get open and be the sure-handed receiver he's always been. The offense will miss his unique skills. The team will miss his galvanizing leadership.

 

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