The NFC South has two of the conferences most powerful offenses, Drew Brees' Saints and Matt Ryan's Falcons. Watching these two teams play each other twice a year will be fun. While the Saints and Falcons are likely the best teams, we can't forget about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And, even though I doubt the Carolina Panthers will find a ton of success this season, watching Cam Newton should be fun.
Last year, the Falcons finished the season with a 13-3 record, winning the division and earning a first-round bye. They lost to the Packers on Green Bay's route to the Super Bowl. Coming in second place was the Saints, who finished with an 11-5 record, winning a spot in the playoffs as a wild card team. They were knocked out of the playoffs by the Seattle Seahawks in a surprising upset. The Buccaneers surprised the league by finishing with a 10-6 record, though they missed out on the playoffs. Finally, the Panthers finished with a 2-14 record, which earned them the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
The Falcons and Saints will likely be back on top this season, but the Buccaneers won't be far behind.
1. Atlanta Falcons (2010 Record: 13-3)
I'm predicting an 11-5 record. The Falcons have a brutal early season schedule against quality teams like the Eagles and Packers, which will set them back. But I do expect them to pick up considerable steam as the season goes on, and they always raise their game against fellow NFC South teams.
What I Think:
I think that the Falcons are one of the top couple teams in the league. Matt Ryan got his Christmas present in April when the team decided to trade away everything they had to select Julio Jones in the first round. Now defenses will have to worry about Roddy White and Jones and that should open the run game for Michael Turner. Matt Ryan is entering his fourth year as the Falcon's quarterback and this year he has the best chance to win the whole thing.
Record Prediction: 12-4 -- Division Winner
2. New Orleans Saints (2010 Record: 11-5)
Two seasons removed from their Super Bowl victory and the Saints still have a talented team capable of winning another. With a powerful offense led by Drew Brees and a defense being called by defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Saints stand a good chance to win their division and make the playoffs for a third straight year. But a tough early schedule will probably keep them grounded. Record: 11-5
What I Think:
The Saints offensive strength in the recent pass has stemmed from Drew Brees' arm and the seemingly thousand wide receivers he spreads the ball out to. However, the addition of Mark Ingram in the draft and Darren Sproles in free agency at the running back position could balance the offensive attack plan a little -- just a little. The Saints will still have a high-flying offense and opposing defenses will still struggle to keep up.
Record Prediction: 10-6 -- Wild Card
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2010 Record: 10-6)
It is undeniable that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a bright future ahead of them. With a talented young quarterback, they know they have their franchise cornerstone for the next decade. Over the past drafts, the Bucs have been accumulating talent on both sides of the ball. In addition to all this, the Bucs are coming off a 10-6 season in which they barely missed the playoffs.
Despite all those positives, I am predicting that the Bucs will take a small step backwards. Last year's successful season was filled with close wins and weak opponents. The Bucs will not be so fortunate this season, and will have to go through a much stronger slate of opponents to get to 10 wins.
Don't despair, though, Bucs fans. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may not improve on their record, but they will almost certainly be a better team. Their time will come, just not this year.
What I Think:
Josh Freeman has been impressive and with him behind center, the Bucs passing game should flourish. It's who is behind Freeman, though, that could help this offense more than anybody -- LaGarrette Blount. Blount ran for 1,007 yards in just 13 games last season and with equal respect given to the passing game as well as the running game, both Freeman and Blount could have big years. However, the Bucs have to work through an extremely tough schedule, including games against the Colts, Bears, Texans, Packers, Cowboys and the Saints and Falcons twice. Because of the schedule, I don't think they'll find the same success they did in 2010.
Record Prediction: 8-8
4. Carolina Panthers (2010 Record: 2-14)
6-10. Given the Panthers are coming off of a 2-14 season, have a new coaching staff, a rookie QB and the hardest schedule in the NFL, six wins might be a little optimistic. I do think they have improved this team in many areas. I still think they are a year away from competing on a weekly basis.
What I Think:
I think that the Panthers are not going to have a fun season and it wouldn't surprise me if they found themselves with the No. 1 overall pick two years in a row. Cam Newton will be fun to watch but he doesn't have much of a shot at being successful. He's got two talented running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, but when it comes to the passing game, he's got an aging Steve Smith and new tight end Greg Olsen. It's likely that teams will stack the box against the Panthers to stop the run and make Newton beat them with his arm -- or his legs. Don't expect anything special from the Panthers this season.
Record Prediction: 3-13