Heading South

As we approach Championship Weekend in the NFL, the four survivors remaining in the hunt for the Vince Lombardi Trophy will become the primary focus of the country’s attention, while the 28 teams who are busy scheduling tee times will be relegated to the back pages of our local newspapers.

Success in the National Football League can come in many different forms. For the 15-1 Green Bay Packers, anything short of a second-consecutive Super Bowl appearance would be deemed a disappointment. For a team that went 2-14 during the 2010 regular season like the Carolina Panthers, a 6-10 campaign in 2011 coupled with the stellar play of rookie quarterback Cam Newton will be considered a step in the right direction, with expectations likely to be raised for the organization entering next season.

Cam NewtonAt 6-10, Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers were the only NFC South team to exceed expectations.

But what about the rest of the NFC South?

The New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each entered the 2011 season with lofty expectations of their own. These three teams combined for 34 wins in 2010, which is more victories than the four teams in the AFC North, AFC South, AFC West, NFC East, NFC North and NFC West totaled during the same time span.

It appeared to many that the division featuring Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and upstart signal-caller Josh Freeman was on the brink of becoming the league’s next powerhouse

Then it all went south.

A 13-3 record is nothing to scoff at, but only one playoff win and a failure to appear, at the very least, in the NFC Championship game is not what the New Orleans’ faithful had in mind for 2011. That Saints were a very real threat to challenge Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, but now find themselves out of contention and looking ahead to next season.

And after watching the New York Giants upset the Pack at Lambeau Field on Sunday, the Saints have to be kicking themselves knowing that a win in San Francisco would have put the organization in position to host the NFC Championship against a team they throttled 49-24 back on November 28.

New Orleans is still loaded with talent and will be right back in the hunt in 2012, but at 33-years-old, you have to wonder how much magic Brees has left before the well runs dry and the Saints find themselves in the unenviable position of having to replace their franchise quarterback.

But at least New Orleans came away with a postseason victory this year, which is more than we can say about the Atlanta Falcons, who once again laid an egg when it mattered most. The Falcons have gone 43-21 (.671) since Mike Smith took over as head coach and Matt Ryan was drafted as the team’s franchise quarterback, but the organization is 0-3 in the postseason during that same time span and hasn’t notched a playoff win since 2005.

The Ravens’ John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco came into their current positions at the same time Smith and Ryan took charge in Atlanta. But the big difference between the two teams is that Baltimore is 5-3 in the postseason over the last four years and will be making an appearance in the AFC Championship game this Sunday for the second time in three years.

The honeymoon phase for Smith and Ryan has long since passed. If these two fail to bring a postseason win to the city of Atlanta next season, the clock is going to start ticking…if it hasn’t already.

Josh FreemanJosh Freeman and the Buccaneers took a big step backwards in 2011.

And then there’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose ten-win season a year ago is a distant memory, having been replaced by a ten-game losing streak to close out the 2011 campaign that cost head coach Raheem Morris his job. It wasn’t all that long ago that Morris and quarterback Josh Freeman were being touted as two of the brightest up-and-coming stars in the business.

Morris is now the defensive backs coach in Washington while Freeman finds himself on the hot seat after throwing 22 interceptions in 15 games and taking a big step back from where he was a year ago. Tampa is young, undisciplined and in transition. It could be a while before this team makes another run at the postseason.

For a division with so much talent and so much promise, it’s hard to imagine that the Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers are a combined 5-8 in postseason play since 2007. If you remove New Orleans from the equation, that record falls to 0-5.

The NFL offseason offers each of the 32 organizations the chance to regroup, reload and start anew. For the four teams that comprise the NFC South, the next few months must be spent addressing the problem areas and finding solutions in an effort to achieve more on-field success in 2012.

Otherwise, the shortcomings are sure to continue.

Hit me up on Twitter: @JoeFortenbaugh

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