Moving along to the NFC South, let’s look at the four teams that the 49ers will play this coming year. Tampa Bay is this division’s doormat and will be so again this year. Historically, this franchise has been a pretty dependable stinker. Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin brought a fairly long run of surprising relevance, capped off by John Gruden’s improbable run to the SB, but all of these fellows are now gone, along with Warren Sapp, Mike Alstott, John Lynch, and Warrick Dunn. Back to the outhouse they have marched, retracing old, familiar ground. Their new HC was good copy in his first year, but what’s good for the press is not always good for the franchise. He was tripping all over himself is what I’m saying. Perhaps he’s taken some dancing lessons this past off season.
The Carolina Panthers have a fairly good team, as witnessed by their division winning 12-4 record in 2008 and their ability to survive Jake Delhomme’s total melt down last year, as well as the loss of their best run stopping Dlineman during TC, and still manage to stagger home with an 8-8 record that could easily have been 5-11 had the team thrown in the towel along the way. They have a good running game, not much in the WR department, and a young QB who looked good late last year, but has not faced much game-planning yet. We saw what a little game planning did to Shaun Hill’s mojo last year, so it’s difficult to see the Panthers putting up much of a challenge to the Saints this year. Nor keeping up with the Falcons.
The Falcons are also a good team, and probably a little better than the Panthers. Their young and fabulously wonderful straight out of the box Wheaties cover QB Matt Ryan is embarking on his third year in the league. A better situation than the Panthers. They also managed to wipe the floor up with the 49ers last year, handing them the most lopsided loss in franchise history! It was this game that brought the Turk to the edge of the stage brandishing the hook that was stretched out and looped around Shaun Hill’s neck the very next Sunday for a definitive whisking off center stage and onto the off Broadway circuit now playing in Detroit. It was also the game that started the dump Nate Clements band wagon, which is still wobbling along the road as I type these words. The defining stinker game of the year.
That game was at Candlestick and marked the beginning of a four game losing streak that wiped out the euphoria of the team’s 3-1 start. The game this year is in Atlanta. Not very encouraging. The 49ers might have to hope the football gods are about to play a cruel trick on the Falcons. Last year, for the first time in their unstoried history, they managed to achieve back-to-back winning seasons. I kid you not. Now that they’ve broken that streak (the longest such oddball stat in NFL history), perhaps they will now record back-to-back losing seasons as karmic payback. Or not.
The Saints still appear to be the class of this division, however. The one thing that could derail them is the chest-thumping parade down Big Shot Blvd. that they conducted for almost the entire off season. For one, this sort of self-congratulatory excess can tend to give a little more oomph to the opposition’s efforts this coming season. For another, it’s tough to repeat in the NFL, especially when you are preening for the cameras instead of preparing for battle.
After all, if Brett Farve hadn’t reprised his 2007 “Incredibly Stupid Season Ending Pass” clunker, the Saints wouldn’t even have gotten to the SB, where they again were treated fondly by the football gods, who decided to destroy the Colts pass rush by causing Dwight Freeney to go lame during the first half. Hard to say if those devilsome gods were elevating the Saints or sticking another you-ain’t-Joe-Montana up Peyton Manning’s historical butt.
At any rate, the 49ers have to play these New Orleans darlings this year. We get them at home and in only the second game of the season, so who knows? Maybe Singletary’s boys will be a little more ready for combat than the SB-hungover Saints. Everything will depend on the 49ers ability to put pressure on Brees. If they do, we have a game. If they don’t, the disgruntled crowd will be heading home early.