Five things to know and my all-division team.
Division MVP: Matt Ryan, Falcons. You can make a case for him as the MVP of the entire league. With one game remaining in his fifth season, Ryan already has career highs in completions (394), passing yards (4,481) and touchdown passes (31). His 69.0 completion percentage also is far above his career average.
But the most impressive thing about Ryan’s season might be the 13 wins he already has led the Falcons to. It all has come in a season in which the Falcons have overhauled their offense to make the passing game a priority. With the running game posing almost no threat, Ryan has carried this offense.
Biggest disappointment: The Carolina Panthers. Back in the preseason, the Panthers were a trendy pick as a team on the rise. The media, myself included, thought quarterback Cam Newton would only build on a fantastic rookie season and that Carolina had fixed its defense. Fans got giddy, and even center Ryan Kalil joined the fray, taking out a full-page ad in The Charlotte Observer that promised a Super Bowl victory.
Instead, the Panthers didn’t even come close to making the playoffs. They started so poorly that general manager Marty Hurney was fired in October and coach Ron Rivera clearly is on the hot seat. The current three-game winning streak might get Rivera another year. But you have to wonder why a team with this much talent didn’t open the season playing the way it is now.
The story that never stopped: The New Orleans Saints dominated the offseason headlines for the entire league (maybe the entire sports world) when the NFL exposed their three-year bounty program. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games, and assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for the first six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was given a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith was hit with a four-game suspension.
While all that was going on, fans also started sweating as contract negotiations between quarterback Drew Brees and the team dragged on far too long. Brees finally signed, and Vilma and Smith tied things up in the appeals process before eventually having their suspensions vacated. All the drama took a toll as the Saints started 0-4 before getting on a bit of a roll and briefly entering the playoff picture. But the soap opera isn’t over. During the season, it was revealed that the NFL had voided the contract extension Payton signed last year. He could end up being a free agent when he is reinstated.
Has the window closed? Even if Payton does return to the Saints, they might not automatically be the winning team they were the previous three seasons. This team will face major salary-cap issues in the offseason, and veterans such as Vilma, Smith and Roman Harper could be gone.
The defense needs lots of work up front and more help in the secondary. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod is eligible to be a free agent, and the wide receivers are getting older. No matter who is coaching the Saints, they’re going to need some major work in the offseason.
The turnaround that wasn’t: Right from the start of the season, it appeared that new Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano was having a huge positive impact. At first, the Bucs were piling up moral victories by playing close against good teams. Then they started winning and got to 6-4; the playoffs looked like a possibility and Josh Freeman was looking like a franchise quarterback.
But things have gone horribly wrong the past five games. Freeman suddenly reverted to his 2011 form, the pass defense has been ridiculously bad, and the Bucs are having a second straight miserable December. That makes you wonder whether the team is buying into Schiano’s hard-line style. It works for guys such as Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin because they win. But when a coach like that is losing, you have to wonder if he’s another Nick Saban or Ray Perkins.
You will quickly notice that the Falcons dominate the All-NFC South team. That’s largely because they ran away with the division, and winning counts for a lot in my eyes. That’s why I took Julio Jones as the second receiver over Vincent Jackson, Steve Smith and Marques Colston. Those three had stats as good or better than Jones, but his play has helped the Falcons win 13 games so far. I also used that logic in choosing both of Atlanta’s starting cornerbacks, although it certainly helped that the other three teams had major problems at cornerback.