The NFL’s southern divisions pack a lot of power. Last season’s Super Bowl between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts highlighted the counter conference’s blend of star supremacy. Closer looks into both divisions reveal the likes of future Hall of Fame passers Peyton Manning and Drew Brees; record-setting runners in Chris Johnson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner; and dangerous wideouts Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Marques Colston. Although the Colts and Saints finished last season on top, dark horse challengers are racing in hopes of winning their respected crowns. The AFRO analyzes.

NFC South
The New Orleans Saints did the unimaginable last year, snapping a 43-year drought to bless the city with its first Super Bowl victory. But with a team fully stacked and a head coach and quarterback currently at the top of their games, fans won’t allow the club to swell over last year’s accomplishments. The Saints offense was lethal last season, skipping up and down the field at ease and ringing up the scoreboard at record rates. With an opportunistic defense snatching interceptions and sacks, it all came together for the Saints to compose a championship team. New Orleans will be favored as the reigning champs but will have to keep an eye on the division’s best kept secret in Atlanta.

The Falcons limped through an injury-plagued 2009, but all systems are go for a bounce back campaign. Atlanta lost last year’s series against New Orleans by a combined 11 points but look to close the gap this season as third-year signal caller Matt Ryan angles to make a push into the NFL’s elite quarterback club. The Falcons’ offense is primed and the defense finally acquired the cover corner the team’s been seeking for years when it signed free agent Dunta Robinson.

The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers even out the division. But, while both teams offer something to the imagination—Carolina with its power running and Tampa with its roster of young talent—the absences of prominent quarterbacks could prevent both clubs from being serious challengers to the Saints and Falcons. Super Bowl hangovers have been the “in thing” for recent winners, but as long as New Orleans stays healthy (and fights off Atlanta), they could waltz to another NFC South Crown.

AFC South
When it comes to the AFC South it all starts with the Indianapolis Colts. Manning is everything in Indy and his presence has culminated in a 131-61 record in his 12-year career for the Colts. After a bitter defeat in the Super Bowl, Manning will return this season with one of the most lethal set of weapons in the league. Indianapolis will also welcome the return of oft-injured safety Bob Sanders, who has missed 36 regular season games in the last four years. When available, Sanders is one of the best playmakers in the league, combining coverage and clobbering from his strong safety position. While AFC South rivals, the Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars are always nipping at the Colts’ heels, they never seem close enough to get that full chomp.

The Texans have been penciled in for the last few years as division dark horses and with valid reasons. The offense is potent with doses of Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub, and the defense has the ability to press passers. A work in progress secondary might limit the Texans chances, however. Losing the aforementioned Dunta Robinson to the Falcons deprives Houston of its best defensive back.

The Jaguars and Titans level out the division with arguably the best two running backs in the AFC, Jones-Drew and Johnson. The lack of lockdown defenses and consistent passing attacks makes edging the Colts and Texans somewhat implausible for both Jacksonville and Tennessee. If Indy can remain healthy, they have the talent and the quarterback to win another AFC South title.

 

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO