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Free Zone: play on.  Welcome to the first edition of Mothballin’ NFL Commentary, dished out at a volume too loud for your ears, so you’ll have to settle on reading instead.  This column will serve to provide conscious perspectives on everything National Football League for The Southern Fried Sports Girl.  With the NFL preseason underway, I feel it’s appropriate start with assessments of each NFL Division, with previews and predictions for each team.  So first up is my personal favorite, the NFC South.
NFC South
Prediction:
1)    Falcons – Win Division
2)    Saints – Wild-card
3)    Panthers
4)    Buccaneers
Atlanta Falcons
Key Players – QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, WR Roddy White, TE Tony Gonzalez, CB Dunta Robinson, DE John Abraham
Breakout Player – WR Harry Douglas
           
The Falcons are on the verge of accomplishing great things these days.  Native to Atlanta, MBC (Mothballin’ Comentation) is a Falcon.  Entering his 3rd  NFL season, Matt Ryan aims to lead this talented flock towards a 2nd Franchise Division Title.  The offense returns all Pro Bowlers at every skill position. With the addition of Harry Douglas, who missed the 2009 season due to injury, their potent offensive plans will become reality.  This year, the Falcons are healthy and ready to show their true game.  With Sean Weatherspoon fronting the rookies, former first round pick Perry Jerry, and second round pick William Moore finally 100%, the team has a sudden inflow of youth talent spicing up their roster.  Many believe Matty-Ice went cold his sophomore season, yet his numbers were better and the Falcons suffered many injuries in 2009.  My prediction that the Falcons will win the NFC South this year is based on two necessary reasons. The Falcons retained their strong 2009 lineup; adding Dunta Robinson, the top cornerback in free agency, and Michael Turner is healthy and reportedly in excellent shape.  Second, the Falcons face an out of conference schedule of opponents with an average 40% win percentage.  The Saints, who we will get to next, face a schedule of opponents with an average 60% win percentage.  Last year the Falcons were severely banged-up during the toughest games of their challenging schedule, yet they still played the Saints very close in their two division games. Coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons with a fire lit beneath them to “Rise Up”, the Falcons are going to be serious playoff contenders.
New Orleans Saints
Key Players – QB Drew Brees, WR Marques Colston, WR Robert Meachem, TE Jeremy Shockey, RB Reggie Bush, FS Darren Sharper, LB Jonathan Vilma
Breakout Player – DB Malcolm Jenkins

Coming off a sensational season of “destiny”, the Saints look to defend their Super Bowl Title.  MBC believes they are fully capable of accomplishing this difficult feat; however the 2009 season is now past memory, and the road to repeating will truly challenge the Saints this season.  GM Mickey Loomis wisely kept the roster near identically intact, adding decent depth players through free agency and the draft.  Few position changes occurred, except Malcolm Jenkins seems slated for Darren Sharper’s ball-hawking free safety spot.  Although the Saints retained Sharper in free agency, they seem to be ready to upgrade his position with a groomed young replacement.  The elite Dree Brees will lead this team through another statistically fantasy season, however several factors might water down that great season.  Last year, several bottom-league teams nearly defeated the Saints, exposing the few flaws in their nearly impeccable team.  As mentioned above, they face a more daunting schedule than their Falcon rivals.  Lastly, MBC fully believes in a consistent NFL phenomenon: The Madden Curse.  Yes, you read it hear just now; the Madden Curse will haunt the 2010 Saints. To those who are not familiar with the curse: the player, or his represented team, that earns the legendary cover of Madden that year is doomed to injury or failure.  Here are a few noteworthy examples:
2010: Cover – Troy Palamalu. Result: Palamalu missed the majority of the 2009 season with injury as the Steelers failed to repeat their championship.
2009: Cover – Brett Favre. Result: Favre tears bicep half way through season and the Jets dive-bomb out of the playoffs.
2006: Cover – Donovan McNabb. Result: McNabb tore his ACL against the Titans, ending his season prematurely.
2005: Cover – Ray Lewis. Result: Lewis’s season ended in week 15 due to injury; however this season was strange: he did not record an interception, the only time in his career.
2004: Cover – Michael Vick.  Result:  Vick broke his leg in the preseason, missing 12 games while the Falcons imploded without him.
So as you can tell, MBC does not wish harm on anybody or anything, but believes strongly in the Madden Curse.  The Saints are the same squad of yesteryear; hopefully their fate this go around will survive the hardships this season will deal to them.
Carolina Panthers
Key Players – WR Steve Smith, RB DeAngelo Williams, RB Jonathan Stewart, QB Matt Moore, LB Jon Beason
Breakout Player – QB Jimmy Clausen
The Panthers are on the chopping block this season.  They cleaned their roster of older veterans, but kept their key players to sustain the backbone of this team.  Matt Moore proved he could win after the Panthers finally ended the Jake Delhomme plane crash last season.  However he lacks elite QB skills necessary to play at a consistent high level.  Jimmy Clausen was a 2nd round steal for the Panthers; coming out of Notre Dame, the rookie QB displayed his confidence to play at the NFL level instantly in Carolina’s preseason opener against the stacked Ravens.  Clausen looked sharp in his debut, making several remarkable plays. He did make rookie mistakes here and there, but if Matt Moore struggles early in the season, the future Panthers Franchise QB will be called up to the big leagues.  Fortunately for both QBs, the Panthers will be able to rely on their dangerous running game commanded by the two thousand yard-headed monster DeAngelStewar.  The “gruesome twosome” (coined here by MBC… and Danny Devito) will dominate the line of scrimmage, but defenses still cannot cheat the running game because of the home-run presence of Steve Smith.  Losing Julius Peppers and other experienced veterans leaves their defense with many question marks.  John Fox enters this season in the last year on his contract, and he knows he better win now or else.  The identity of this team must step up with their coach and prove they are more than a rebuilding franchise.  The Panthers will have an interesting season full of progress, but not enough to achieve W’s on Sunday this year.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Key Players: QB Josh Freeman, TE Kellen Winslow, RB Cadillac Williams, LB Barrett Ruud, CB Aqib Talib
Breakout Player: DT Gerald McCoy
Year 2 looks to be hopeful and developmental for this still growing Bucs team. Raheem Morris has now had two drafts to build the foundations of his team, banking on potential franchise QB Josh Freeman.  Freeman showed excellent abilities last season, but still needs to mature to be regarded as a true NFL passer.  With the Rams taking Sam Bradford 1st overall in the draft, the Bucs received a gift to draft Gerald McCoy. An oppressive defense tackle at Oklahoma, McCoy will be able to contribute to Tampa Bay’s defensive line immediately.  The emergence of Sammie Stroughter combined with a WR heavy draft constitutes the future of the Buccaneers.  Ideally Josh Freeman will productively grow with this young receiving group, encouraging the fans in the direction Morris is guiding the Bucs.  Halfway through the 2009 season, Morris took control of the defense coordination, reverting back to the classic Tampa-2 scheme.  The defense has greatly improved since, and Morris remains the defensive coach heading into the 2010 season.  Just like you can’t cram 27 hours into a day, you can’t build a team in just one year.  Look for signs of the future in this year’s Buccaneers again; they are still building their team and are bound for a painful, yet promising, growing season.
So that concludes the debut of The Southern Fried Sports Girl’s Mothballin’ NFL Comentation coverage.  Look for frequent MBC entries as we finally head into a long-awaited NFL season.  As always on this column: fun is number one, but safety comes first.
       Mothball
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