There was a time that the team that finished last in this division was almost guaranteed to win the division the following year. I don't see that happening this year, but this is one of the strongest divisions in the NFL across the board. Let's take a look at the break down and see where the South stacks up this season.
4. Carolina Panthers - Saying the Panthers struggled last season would be an understatement. They had one of the worst offenses in the NFL, and every quarterback they put under center was annihilated by opposing defenses. With a new coach and a new offensive scheme, things should be a little different this season. They have all the pieces in place on offense. Three exceptional tight ends in Jeremy Shockey, Greg Olsen, and Ben Hartsock. They also boast three great running backs with a healthy DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, and Mike Goodson. Steve Smith is still the focal point at wide receiver but has noticeably declined over the past few seasons. Cam Newton appears to be the front runner to start the season at QB over Jimmy Clausen. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Clausen get more time to prove himself as a starter, but they wrote him off by drafting Cam Newton first overall. You can't deny that Newton is talented, but look for him to struggle in a new system with a short off season.
Defensively, this team was awful. They gave up nearly 27 points a game last season. You can have Peyton Manning under center and you're not going to win too many games with that type of production. The Panthers may have been wise to trade down in the draft and stock pile picks and take the top rated defensive player on the board. At 2-14, you have a lot more holes to fill than the QB position, especially picking a non-traditional quarterback that may or may not adjust to an NFL style offense. What's done is done though and they move forward with the players that they have. This defense is old and plays old on the field. They get burned too often for big plays and wear down in the red zone. The offense will be better this year regardless of who the quarterback is, but look for the defense to continue to give up 24 plus points a game. The Panthers will be lucky to outdo last seasons record. Projection: 3-13. Maybe next year they can take my advice and trade the first overall pick and strengthen that defense.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - I love the optimism flying around Tampa Bay about their football team, but this is one of the youngest teams in the NFL and they are still a year or two away from overtaking the Falcons and Saints. Raheem Morris has done an outstanding job with this football team. They kept all the same players in place from a 10-6 season a year ago. A year older expect them to be even better. Morris said last season that they were the best team in the NFC. He wasn't far off. Looking back, it should have been them in the playoffs instead of the Green Bay Packers. But a horrible call to nullify a TD in week 17 kept them out, allowed the Packers to get in, and the rest is history. Josh Freeman played like an elite QB last season, with his favorite target being rookie wide out Mike Williams. LeGarrette Blount is an amazing talent out of Oregon and his second season should be a good one. Expect 1200 yards and 10 TD's out of him this year. Right now Armondo Allen is listed as the fifth running back, but I expect him to get into the mix and get some carries as well as the season progresses. Drafting Gerald McCoy and Da'Quan Bowers in the draft will make the defense even better than it was a year ago. If Aquib Talib can stay out of trouble, we can be one of the best corners in the league. I think this team would have a chance to win any other division in the NFC, but the South is really tight. If they can split with New Orleans, they will finish 10-6 again.
2. New Orleans Saints - The Saints have very little room for error moving forward. The Buc's are right on there tail and the Falcons are pulling away in the division. They did solidify the running game by drafting Mark Ingram, who I feel will be one of the best backs in the league in a few years. He has all the intangibles and has been compared to Emmitt Smith frequently. They also bring back Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory, who are both very good runners. Reggie Bush went to the Dolphins, but they replaced him with Darren Sproles, so expect him to play the same role Bush played in previous years. The Saints have an abundance of wide receivers for Drew Brees to choose from. Expect Marques Colston to drop off as he gets older and more surgeries under his belt. Lance Moore will have a huge season for the Saints, and Devery Henderson is able to spread the field every play. Last year they looked soft at times on defense (just look at Marshawn Lynch's run in the playoffs), so they brought in Sean Rogers to shore up that front four. It's imperative to stop the run in this division facing Michael Turner, Williams and Stewart, and Blount in Tampa each twice a season. The window of opportunity for many players on this team is closing, so this year will be huge to see where they are. Look for the Saints to finish 11-5 this season, if they can beat the Bucs and Falcons at least once.
1. Atlanta Falcons - This team won 13 games last year only to be blown out at home against the Green Bay Packers. If the Packers didn't make the playoffs last year and the Buc's got in like they should have, Matt Ryan may have been visiting the white house two weeks ago as Super Bowl MVP. Look for this team to be better than they were a year ago. Julio Jones has looked like a beast in training camp and they are excited to have him lined up across from Roddy White. White has quietly become one of the best receivers in the league, leading the NFL in catches last season. Tony Gonzales is arguably the best tight end to ever play the game and Michael Turner is healthy and should have a 1300 yard 13 TD season. Defensively this team flies to the ball and are very aggressive. They will make a lot of big plays, but gambling means giving up a lot of big plays. The Falcons should win 13 games again and have home field advantage in the playoffs. Once they are in the playoffs, it's not a given for them to win any games. They proved that last season. Matt Ryan and this team need to show they can perform in big games. There's not a lot of playoff experience on this roster, so that is a disadvantage. They are the best team in the NFC though, and if they play to their potential, look for them to run deep into the playoffs.
This division will be interesting to follow this year. It may be the only division where three teams have a legitimate chance of winning the crown.