With the 2013 schedule hot off the presses and the NFL Draft less than a week away, we check in once again on the headlines being generated by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' three foes in the NFC South:
The Falcons are gearing up for five nationally-televised prime-time games in 2013, including two in the first five weeks, right before the Buccaneers visit Atlanta. The Saints also have four prime-time dates, but an opening at left tackle to figure out before any of those games are contested. Carolina could be a major player in the NFC South's final standings, regardless of how well-positioned they are in the race, as four of their five December games are against division foes. As for the draft, the Falcons are open to another big leap upward, the Panthers are focusing on the best available player and the Saints could be in the market for help at that "wide-open" tackle position.
The 2012 season ended in heartbreaking fashion in Atlanta, where the Falcons lost a fourth-quarter lead in the NFC Championship Game and narrowly missed out on their second Super Bowl appearance. The entire NFL will be watching as the Falcons try to take the next step in 2013, as Atlanta will be featured on five nationally-televised prime-time games this coming fall. That ties Denver, New England, San Francisco, Washington and the New York Giants for the most prime-time games in 2013, and it includes a rematch of the NFC title game with San Francisco in Week 16. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, when they visit the Georgia Dome in Week Seven, it will fall right after Atlanta's bye week. The Falcons should be well-rested and enjoying some home cooking by that point, in fact, because their Week Six bye comes right after consecutive prime-time home games – Sunday night vs. the Patriots in Week Four and Monday night vs. the Jets in Week Five. In that aforementioned NFC Championship Game, Falcons receiver Julio Jones capped off an outstanding sophomore NFL season by catching 11 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns, though it wasn't enough to stave off a 28-24 loss. With the 2013 draft just around the corner, it's hard not to think about the dramatic trade the Falcons engineered to move up in the first round of the 2011 draft and snare the former Alabama receiver. According to Atlanta General Manager Thomas Dimitroff, the Falcons will consider a similarly big move this year if the opportunity presents itself. With 11 draft picks in hand at the moment, Dimitroff has some ammunition to move around in any round. "I think it’s very clear that we are open for big deals as well should they ever come across our table and it's something we’re interested in," he said in his recent pre-draft press conference. "As a staff, as a coaching staff, as a personnel staff, as team builders, we’re really excited about going into this draft with 11 [picks]. It doesn’t mean we'll come out with 11." D. Orlando Ledbetter thinks that if the Falcons are working on trading up again they may be doing so with their sights set on a cornerback.
In Carolina, the Panthers will be breaking an opening-day streak just like the Falcons (and the Buccaneers, for that matter). Both Carolina and Atlanta will begin their regular-season slates at home this year, which is the first time for the Panthers since 2009 and the first time for the Falcons since 2008. (Conversely, the Bucs will open on the road this year for the first time since 2008.) Carolina has its intra-division schedule heavily back-loaded, with four of their last five games coming against NFC South foes, all in December. That includes a visit from the Buccaneers on Dec. 1. After the Buccaneers took an overtime decision at Bank of America Stadium last November, Carolina went on to win five of their last six games for a 7-9 season finish. That was similar to the Panthers' pattern in 2011, when four of the team's six wins came after November 26. As such, Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera is focusing on a faster start in 2013. "Everybody wants to start fast, but the key for us more so than anything else is coming out and playing well from the beginning, from Day One," said Rivera. "We have to play to our abilities, have to pick up where we left off last year and be better." As Panthers' Senior Writer Bryan Strickland points out, however, it won't be easy. Four of Carolina's first seven games are on the road, and two of the other three come against potentially strong Seahawk and Giant squads. As for the draft, the Panthers are set to pick 12th (right before Tampa Bay) and with new General Manager Dave Gettleman believing that several important roster needs were met through free agency, they are prepared to go with the best available player, regardless of position. "I firmly believe in picking the best player available," said Gettleman at his pre-draft press conference. "l feel like we've positioned ourselves in free agency well enough given what we had to deal with that we are in that position," Gettleman said. "If there's a great whatever staring us in the kisser, we're going to take him." Gettleman also said that he will be cautious about trading down, despite the fact that the Panthers are missing their third-round pick, an asset that could be recouped through a draft-day deal. "Would I like to have a third-round pick? Sure, but where we are now, we're looking at good players. We're going to have quality, NFL-ready players to select," he said. "Getting more picks, obviously, would involve trading down. You've got to be careful because you can talk yourself out of a really good player. I've watched teams drop from the top 10 to 15th to the bottom of the first round, to the top of the second. For what? Do you want a dollar or do you want three dimes? I'd take the buck."
In New Orleans, the Saints are preparing to start their season against the division-rival Falcons, the team they knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten in Week 10 last year at the Superdome. They won't have to wait long after that to find themselves in the national spotlight, as the first of their four prime-time games is a home Monday-nighter against Miami in Week Four. The Saints also have a second MNF date, at Seattle in Week 13, as well as a Sunday night game at home against Dallas in Week 10 and a Thursday-night rematch with the Falcons in Atlanta in Week 12. The Saints' non-prime-time slate is probably highlighted by a Week Six trip to New England, which Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com calls one of the season's 10 can't-miss games. As for the schedule as a whole, the Saints may be warily eyeing (among other concerns) the teams with the most potent pass rushes (San Francisco, Arizona, Chicago, the Jets) because they lost left tackle Jermon Bushrod to the Bears and haven't necessarily replaced him yet. The team did sign T Jason Smith, a former #2-overall pick who hasn't yet lived up to that draft spot, but Mr. Prisco chimes in again with his prediction of another offensive tackle – Florida State's Menelik Watson –for the Saints at #14 in his recent mock draft. Head Coach Sean Payton doesn't know who his starting left tackle will be yet in 2013 but thinks the answer could very well come from the current roster, after a "wide-open" competition. "This is a great example of a job that is wide open," Peyton recently told WWL Radio. "Hopefully the guys that have a chance to compete for that position step up and someone separates themselves. That kind of thing happened when (Jermon) Bushrod came into that position in our scrimmages against the Texans (in 2009). We lost our starter there and Jermon stepped in and really earned the spot and became our starting left tackle for quite a while. I think time will tell. We have some guys that will get reps at that position. Hopefully it’s an easy decision and someone separates themselves.”