By Marc Lawrence
If you are a vegan chances are you are likely a devotee of the NFC West. If you like barbeque, Cajun jambalaya and southern fried chicken, then the NFC South is sure to satisfy your palate.
It's in this division they've been cooking up a winning recipe a lot lately. Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay made playoff appearances three times each this past decade, while New Orleans won last year's cook-off when they stunned Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV.
Incidentally, life on the division road has been particularly kind to members of this loop as evidenced by its 49-46 SU and 58-37 ATS mark since the league re-aligned divisions in 2002. When taking to the division road and seeking revenge they are 29-16 ATS, including 18-6 when facing a .500 or less opponent.
And when they take on the AFC North this campaign they'll do so knowing this Mason-Dixon battle has seen the underdog go 13-4-2 ATS in the last 19 skirmishes.
Yes, there's lots of tantalizing hors d'oeuvres to munch on when sizing up this division and it's pretty much finger licking good.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
TEAM THEME: BURN BABY BURN
Head coach Mike Smith was hot under the collar when his Falcons fell one-game short of making it back to the playoffs two years in a row last season. Completing the first-ever back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history wasn't enough to satisfy Smith's driving desire. Had star QB Matt Ryan not gone down to injury early in December (0-2 without him), successive playoff appearances would likely have been in the offing. In addition, RB Michael Turner missed five games last season while managing to rush for 871 yards. The 240-pound burner is a difference-maker when healthy. On the defensive front, the hope is that former Pro Bowl DE John Abraham returns to 2008 form when he had 16.5 sacks. This we know for sure: Smith does not condone losing. It's one reason why the Falcons are 9-3 SU and 10-2 ATS in games off a loss under his lead. Now that's a flammable warning you need to heed.
PLAY ON: at New Orleans (9/26) - *KEY off a loss
After playing in SB XXXIX in 2003 and making it back to the NFC championship game in 2005, the Panthers have been on cruise control, appearing in only one post-season game since. It has fans on edge and head coach John Fox on the run. Despite averaging nearly 9.5 wins per season in his nine-year tenure with Carolina, Fox is suddenly on shaky ground. As a result, a major roster overhaul is at hand. Of the 85 players on hand at a spring minicamp, 36 weren't with the team for the final game of the 2009 season. QB Jake Delhomme (Cleveland) was cut and five-time Pro Bowl DE Julius Peppers (Chicago) was allowed to leave in free agency. The four quarterbacks on hand have a combined eight NFL starts, with rookie Jimmy Clausen challenging Matt Moore for the starting job. For a coach entering the last year of his contract and coming off an 8-8 season, it's time to strike up the band.
PLAY ON: at New Orleans (10/3)
When a team that had a total of two post-season victories the previous 42 years goes on to win three playoff games in the same season, including a coveted Super Bowl championship, we'd call that a crowning achievement. Not to say the Saints cut a deal with the Devil, but blessed they were for sure in their Super Bowl run. New Orleans trailed 24-10 at Miami before storming back to win. Down 11 at the half against Carolina, the Aint's rallied to win by 10. And of course the classic overtime thriller against the Vikings in the NFC title game. Drew Brees refused to lose and as a result the Crescent City came full circle in its comeback over Hurricane Katrina. But as years of experience have taught us, there's always a price to pay if ever the names ‘Satan' or ‘Super Bowl Champion' are in the discussion. Try as they may, the Saints may be double-cursed in 2010.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Tampa Bay (1/2) - *KEY -7 pts or more
Let's face it. With 18 undrafted free agents on the 53-man roster, Raheem Morris was a dead man walking in his rookie season last year. What he did manage to salvage out of a three-win season was plenty, though. Wins in two of the three final games of the season, including an overtime victory over Super Bowl champion New Orleans (as 14-point underdogs) topped the list. So did the fact that the Bucs went 3-6 behind QB Josh Freeman, a quantum leap over the 0-7 start they suffered before he was inserted into the lineup. Freeman has all the physical attributes and is a workaholic. He may not carry the high profile of Matthew Stafford and Mark Sanchez, the two highly touted QB's drafted ahead of him in the 2008 draft, but he could care less. Like Morris, all he's looking to do is improve. Behind a super draft, look for the Bucs to ignore the critics and begin the climb back up the ladder.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. St. Louis (10/24)