Falcons will soar in the South, while 49ers take a step back in the West


As long as Matt Ryan is taking snaps at quarterback, the Falcons should supplant the Saints atop the NFC South.

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Last year in the NFC, five teams—Packers (15-1), 49ers (13-3), Saints (13-3), Lions (10-6) and Falcons (10-6)—dominated the conference. Not only that, but Green Bay, New Orleans and San Francisco scored huge at the betting window, combining to go 35-12-1 against the spread (according to stats at Covers.com). And yet who stormed through the NFC playoffs (beating the Falcons, Packers and 49ers) and won the Super Bowl (beating the 13-3 Patriots), covering the spread in all four games? The 9-7 Giants—the same Giants who lost twice to the last-place Redskins (by a combined score of 51-24), who were 6-6 in early December, who scored six fewer points than their opponents for the season, and who needed a Week 17 victory to even qualify for the playoffs.

Surprises in store from the usually inept AFC South and AFC West

Calling the AFC South and AFC West the weak links in their conference would be like calling Khloe the weak link in the Kardashian empire. After all, between the two divisions, only Houston (10-6) and Tennessee (9-7) finished last year with winning records. What’s more, the West featured a three-way tie between 8-8 squads, with Denver winning the tiebreaker despite allowing 81 more points than it scored.

Having essentially not delivered a winning week since Super Bowl Sunday, now is probably not a smart time to start throwing around guarantees. That said, what’s the worst that can happen, I embarrass myself again? (By the way, I’m convinced this is how Adam Sandler analyzes movie scripts.) So, here goes:

I guarantee you the New Orleans Saints aren’t winning the NFC South this year. And it has nothing to do with coach Sean Payton being put in timeout for an entire year because he failed to stop a bounty program. (Really? NFL players try to maim each other on the field of battle? You don’t say!)

No, the reason the Saints won’t win their division is because they won it last year. And here’s why that matters: In 10 seasons since the NFL realigned into eight four-team divisions, there hasn’t been a single repeat NFC South champion. Since 2007, here are the NFC South’s champs in order: Buccaneers, Panthers, Saints, Falcons, Saints.

Although not as definitive, parity also has found its way into the NFC West, which has crowned a different champ each of the last three years and four of the last five (the only team in the West not to raise a division banner during this stretch is St. Louis). Will the West make it four different division winners in as many seasons? Let’s just say that, while I’m not willing to guarantee this one, my magic 8-ball says “most likely.”

On to my final batch of NFL win-total predictions. (Note: For this exercise, I used the best available numbers and odds from Cantor Gaming, MGM Resorts International and the LVH.)


Buccaneers (5½): A year ago, the majority of sharp bettors jumped all over Tampa Bay-UNDER, convinced that its jump from three wins in 2009 to 10 wins in 2010 was a fluke. Shocker of shockers, I recommended taking Tampa-OVER in 2011—and was dead wrong, as the Bucs reverted to 4-12, including a 10-game season-ending losing skid that cost coach Raheem Morris his job. Well, the feeling here is that while Tampa Bay overachieved two years ago, it woefully underperformed last season, and a big reason was a lack of discipline (the Bucs ranked 29th in penalties and were an NFL-worst minus-16 in turnover ratio). This will improve under new coach/drill sergeant Greg Schiano, as will the play of QB Josh Freeman. The play: OVER (LVH, -110)

Falcons (9): Since becoming Atlanta’s quarterback in 2008, Matt Ryan has started 62 of a possible 64 games. During these four seasons, his team has compiled a 43-21 regular-season record, winning at least nine games each year. This season, Atlanta gets a scheduling break as it alternates road and home games the entire way. Here’s a bigger break: Aside from a trip to San Diego, the Falcons don’t have to travel west of Kansas City. Throw in the Saints’ suspension issues, plus Tampa Bay and Carolina both being about a year away from contention, and this division is Atlanta’s for the taking. Interesting factoid: The last four NFC South champs have won 12, 13, 14 and 13 games. The play: OVER (LVH, -140)

Panthers (7½): Allow me to be the 24,435th critic of Cam Newton’s to say: Mea culpa! The kid was ridiculous as a rookie, racking up more than 4,700 passing and rushing yards and 35 combined touchdowns in putting together a fantasy season for the ages. Now, let’s see if Newton can do it again … after the entire league has had 16 games and a full offseason to break down his film … when he faces a schedule that starts at Bucs, vs. Saints, vs. Giants, at Falcons, vs. Seahawks, vs. Cowboys and at Bears, and ends at Eagles, at Chiefs, vs. Falcons, at Chargers, vs. Raiders and at Saints. Also, don’t forget that five of Carolina’s six wins last year were against the Bucs (twice), Colts, Redskins and Jaguars (combined 2011 record: 16-48). The play: UNDER (LVH, +130)

Saints (9½): It’s difficult to handicap how the Saints’ “us-against-the-world” mentality will play out this season. It’s also difficult to handicap how Drew Brees will do without Payton. This much I do know, though: The Saints will be favored in five of their first six games (vs. Redskins, at Panthers, vs. Chiefs, vs. Chargers, at Bucs); they’ve won 13, 11 and 13 games the last three seasons; and barring a huge leap by the Panthers or Bucs, they’re a lock to finish in second place (which is significant in that the South’s second-place squad has won at least 10 games in three of the last four years). The play: OVER (LVH and MGM Resorts, -120)


Cardinals (7): Last year, after Arizona limped to a 1-6 start, I started counting my money from an “Arizona-Under 7 wins” wager. Then someone named John Skelton came off the bench, took over for inept QB Kevin Kolb and helped guide the Cardinals to a 7-2 finish and a .500 season record. This summer, Skelton and Kolb are dueling for the starting job. The winner gets a filthy schedule that includes tough home games against the Eagles, Bills, Lions, Bears and 49ers, plus six all-but-certain road losses at the Patriots, Packers, Falcons, Jets, Seahawks and 49ers (and the Packers-Falcons and Jets-Seahawks trips occur in a five-week stretch after Halloween). The play: UNDER (Cantor, -135)

49ers (10): After three straight “This is the year” seasons, 2011 finally was the year for the 49ers, who demolished expectations under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, jumping from 6-10 to 13-3. Here’s what we know about teams that make such a dramatic one-year leap: More often than not, there’s a regression the following season (see the Bucs’ results last year and my thoughts on the Lions this year). Now here’s what we know about teams that make such a one-year leap because their QB (in this case, Alex Smith) rose from the dead (17 TDs vs. 5 INTs): That regression is almost always long and painful. Yes, San Francisco’s defense is fierce, but so is a schedule that starts Packers (road), Lions (home), Vikings (road), Jets (road), Bills (home) and Giants (home), followed by late-season trips to New Orleans and New England. The play: UNDER (MGM Resorts, -110)

Rams (6): Here’s your number of the week: 15. That’s how many games the Packers won last season and how many games the Rams have won … over the past five seasons (and seven of those 15 victories came in 2010!). In fact, if you go strictly by point-differential, St. Louis (2-14) was the NFL’s worst team in 2011, producing a league-low 193 points while surrendering 407. So why should this year be different? Because the Rams finally have a competent, experienced head coach (Jeff Fisher). Also, QB Sam Bradford is healthy, and the last time that was the case, he led St. Louis to a 7-9 record in his second season—with far less talent (especially on defense) than this year’s squad features. The play: OVER (LVH, -120)

Seahawks (7): Ordinarily, you’d see me eat rat poison, watch synchronized swimming and take on a second wife—all in the same day—before you’d see me recommend betting on the Seahawks to reach .500. After all, last I checked, coach Pete Carroll’s quarterback depth chart reads as follows: Matt Flynn, who has two career NFL starts; rookie Russell Wilson; and Tarvaris Jackson. Then again, the Seahawks did go 7-9 in Carroll’s first two seasons, and if not for season-ending losses to Arizona and San Francisco by a total of five points, they would’ve closed out last year on a five-game winning streak. The Seahawks’ defense was terrific late last year (14.5 points per game allowed over the final eight weeks), and the toughest games on this year’s docket (Dallas, Green Bay, New England, San Francisco) are all in Seattle, a notoriously difficult venue for visiting teams. The play: OVER (CANTOR, -145)

Best Bets: NFC South – Falcons OVER; NFC North – 49ers UNDER.

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