NFC South: NFC Best teams ever

Best Falcons Team Ever: 1998

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: QB Chris Chandler, RB Jamal Anderson, WR Terance Mathis, LB Jessie Tuggle, K Morten Andersen, LB Cornelius Bennett.

[+] EnlargeJamal Anderson
Getty ImagesJamal Anderson rushed for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1998.
If ever there’s been a one-year wonder, it was the 1998 Atlanta Falcons. For the better part of three months, this team was as hot as any team ever and it really didn’t matter who was coaching.

With coach Dan Reeves having open-heart surgery late in the season, Rich Brooks took over as the interim coach and the Falcons just kept on winning with a great defense and Anderson having a huge year. The Falcons went from Oct. 25, 1998, until the Super Bowl on Jan. 31, 1999, and didn’t lose a game.

During a Dec. 13 victory in New Orleans that made the Falcons 12-2, Reeves began experiencing chest pains. When he mentioned it to team doctors the next morning, they took a look and quickly rushed him into surgery. Without Reeves, the Falcons won the next two regular-season games to finish a franchise-best 14-2.

With some help from a first-round bye, Reeves was able to return for two very narrow playoff victories against San Francisco and Minnesota. The NFC Championship Game was in Minnesota, but Atlanta upset the Vikings. That also put the Falcons into the Super Bowl for the first -- and only -- time. The opponent was Denver.

That set up a great subplot as Reeves went against John Elway, the quarterback he had clashed with when they were together with the Broncos. Things didn’t go well for the Falcons even before the game.

Safety Eugene Robinson was arrested the night before the game and that created turmoil for Reeves and the Falcons. In the end, Robinson played, but it didn’t really matter. Elway and the Broncos had the upper hand, winning 34-19.

Most impressive win: The Nov. 1 game against St. Louis gets an honorable mention because it came after the Falcons got trashed by the Jets and it started the long winning streak. But people who were with the team then said the most important game was on Dec. 20 at Detroit. With Brooks coaching the team, the Falcons overcame three deficits to win 24-17 and clinched the NFC West title (this was before the NFC South was formed in 2002).

Research room: The 1998 Falcons led the NFL in takeaways (44), fumble recoveries (25 ) and time of possession (33:10).

Honorable mention

1980: With quarterback Steve Bartkowski and running back William Andrews leading the way, the Falcons won a division title for the first time in franchise history.

2008: In the aftermath of Bobby Petrino and Michael Vick, coach Mike Smith came in and took over a team that was expected by many to be horrible. With rookie Matt Ryan at quarterback, the Falcons went to the playoffs.

2002: This team made history by going into Lambeau Field and handing the Packers their first home playoff loss in franchise history.

Best Buccaneers Team Ever: 2002

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: LB Derrick Brooks, DT Warren Sapp, S John Lynch, CB Ronde Barber, QB Brad Johnson, WR Keyshawn Johnson, FB Mike Alstott.

[+] EnlargeJon Gruden
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Bucs sent two first-round picks and two second-round picks, plus $8 million, to the Raiders for Jon Gruden.
Analysis: In the first year of the NFC South’s existence, the Glazer family, which owns the Buccaneers, pulled one of the boldest moves in sports history. The Glazers fired coach Tony Dungy, who was beloved by players and fans and the only coach in franchise history to have any extended success.

They thought they had Bill Parcells lined up as the replacement, but Parcells backed out of the deal. That led to desperate measures as the Glazers overstepped general manager Rich McKay, who wanted to hire Marvin Lewis, and worked out a rare trade for a coach. They shipped four draft picks and $8 million in cash to Oakland for Jon Gruden.

Gruden came in and did what Dungy couldn’t -- he won a Super Bowl. Still relying heavily on a defense built by Dungy and coordinator Monte Kiffin, Gruden was able to infuse a little bit of offense into the Buccaneers.

With Brad Johnson at quarterback and Brooks, Lynch, Sapp and Barber all in their prime on defense, the Bucs were pretty much dominant as they went 12-4 and became the first NFC South champions.

In the irony of all ironies, Gruden wound up facing the Raiders, then coached by Bill Callahan, in the Super Bowl. Although the Raiders had the league’s No. 1 offense, Gruden outdid his former team and the Buccaneers won 48-21.

Most impressive win: A 26-14 victory in Week 3 in which the Bucs intercepted St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner four times.

Research room: Tampa Bay’s defense held opposing quarterbacks to a 48.4 passer rating for the season.

Honorable mention

1997: This was not the best Tampa Bay team ever, but it might have been the most important in franchise history. In Dungy’s second season, the Bucs went 10-6 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982. That raised expectations and changed the entire football climate in Tampa Bay.

1979: The Bucs were formed in 1976 under some harsh expansion rules and lost their first 26 games. But with Doug Williams and Lee Roy Selmon leading the way, John McKay took this team to the NFC Championship Game in only its fourth season.

1999: This might have been the Tampa Bay defense at its absolute best. With rookie quarterback Shaun King, the Bucs still managed to go 11-5. The Bucs lost the NFC Championship Game, 11-6, to St. Louis in a game that involved a controversial non-catch by receiver Bert Emanuel.

Best Panthers Team Ever: 2003

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: RB Stephen Davis, QB Jake Delhomme, WR Steve Smith, WR Muhsin Muhammad, DE Julius Peppers, DT Kris Jenkins, LB Dan Morgan.

Analysis: When owner Jerry Richardson talked about how the life had been drained from his franchise during a disastrous 1-15 season in 2001 under coach George Seifert, he couldn’t have expected how dramatic the turnaround would be. Nobody saw the Panthers going to the Super Bowl within two years, but that’s exactly what happened with first-time head coach John Fox.

[+] EnlargeStephen Davis
Craig Jones/Getty ImagesStephen Davis rushed for a career-high 1,444 yards in 2003.
In 2002, Fox’s team showed some promise, but there was no real reason to think the Panthers were ready for an incredible run. They had the makings of a very good defensive line, but nobody really knew how much Davis had left when the Panthers brought him in and nobody had a clue what Delhomme, who had spent his career on the bench in New Orleans, might bring.

Rodney Peete opened the season as the starting quarterback and that lasted all of two quarters before Delhomme came on to rally the Panthers and take over the job. With Davis carrying the offense and the defensive line dominating, Delhomme continued to show a knack for leading comebacks.

The Panthers caught lightning in a bottle and also rode the emotion of preseason news that linebackers coach and former team captain Sam Mills and starting linebacker Mark Fields each had cancer. Carolina finished the regular season 11-5 and won its first NFC South championship.

A playoff victory at home against Dallas wasn’t a big surprise, but the Panthers stunned just about everyone by going on the road and winning at St. Louis (in double overtime) and completely dominating the Eagles on a frigid night in Philadelphia.

That put the Panthers into the Super Bowl against New England. A touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl with one minute, eight seconds remaining tied the score. But Carolina’s chances of pulling the upset faded as John Kasay followed up by kicking the ball out of bounds to give New England good field position. The Patriots kicked the game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining.

Most impressive win: It’s tough to top the image of Steve Smith scoring a touchdown on the first play of the second overtime in St. Louis, but players and coaches will tell you the key moment of the season came in Week 2 at Tampa against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bucs scored a late touchdown and needed only to kick the extra point to win the game. The Panthers blocked the kick, forced overtime and won 12-9.

Research room: This team was known as the “Cardiac Cats." The reason was simple. The Panthers won seven games in the last two minutes or in overtime.

Honorable mention

1996: In only the second year of the franchise’s existence, coach Dom Capers, quarterback Kerry Collins and a great defense took the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay. A home playoff victory against Dallas provided a truly monumental moment for an expansion team and the city of Charlotte.

2005: Fox’s 2004 team underachieved, but the 2005 team overachieved more than any in franchise history. Give the credit to Smith for carrying the Panthers all the way to the NFC Championship Game in Seattle. Injuries to the running backs kept the Panthers from running like Fox wanted to, but Smith and Delhomme had a special chemistry that year.

2008: A 12-4 record, an NFC South crown and a first-round bye added up to absolutely nothing. In what easily is the most disappointing game in franchise history, Arizona came into Bank of America Stadium and routed the Panthers 33-13. Starting with that game, the normally reliable Delhomme began turning the ball over so frequently that he played his way out of Charlotte.

Best Saints Team Ever: 2009

June, 28, 2010
6/28/10
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Notable players: QB Drew Brees, G Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston, RB Reggie Bush, LB Jonathan Vilma, S Darren Sharper.

Analysis: The Saints and New Orleans have gone hand in hand for a long time. But the franchise and the city are locked in a loving embrace right now. That’s because the 2009 Saints won the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history and provided one of the best feel-good stories in recent sports history.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees and Sean Payton
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesDrew Brees and Sean Payton were key acquisitions who helped turn the Saints around.
New Orleans was so battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that it was unclear for a while if the Saints would even be able to stay there for the long term. As the city was rebuilding, so were the Saints. They hired Sean Payton in 2006 and also signed Brees, a move that has turned out to be one of the best free-agent signings in the history of sports.

It took a few years for Payton and Brees to bring up the level of the rest of the team. But it happened in 2009, with Payton making one of the most critical decisions of his tenure. His offense already was very good, but his defense had struggled. He brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who changed the entire personality of the defense.

With Sharper playing the role of a ball hawk and defensive end Will Smith having a huge season, the Saints suddenly became a machine at creating turnovers. The offense took care of the rest as the Saints won their first 13 games and ran away with the NFC South.

Injuries caused a little slump at the end and the Saints lost their final three games. Payton later admitted in his book that it was “crisis time," but you never really got that sense from the Saints at the time. Payton handled the situation masterfully, using the bye to get his team healthy, rested and ready, and the home-field advantage played a key role in playoff victories against Arizona and Minnesota.

The Super Bowl turned out to be a showcase for Payton’s bold coaching style. His decision to open the second half with an onside kick was successful in catching the Colts off guard. It gave the Saints control of the game and probably was the biggest play in franchise history.

Most impressive win: It seemed as if the Saints were playing big games every week as the season went on. But none was bigger than a 38-17 victory against New England on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12. Once and for all, that sent a message that the Saints were a legitimate force.

Research room: The Saints were so dominant early on that they never trailed in their first five games. They didn’t fall behind an opponent until Oct. 25 at Miami and that opened the door for a series of comebacks.

Honorable mention

1987: After a miserable early history for the franchise, coach Jim Mora and general manager Jim Finks put together a team that recorded New Orleans’ first winning season. That paved the way for the Saints to make the playoffs four times in the Mora era.

2000: The Mike Ditka era was a disaster, but rookie coach Jim Haslett came in and took the Saints to the playoffs in his first season. He also did something Mora never did. He won a playoff game.

2006: The arrival of Payton and Brees, combined with the re-opening of the Superdome, gave the Saints a huge emotional lift. They rode that all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

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