2013 NFC South preview: Are the Saints ready to contend again?

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The Saints are ready to push for a division title after a lost season, but the Atlanta Falcons are still the team to beat in the NFC South. And just how close are Carolina and Tampa Bay to contending?

Washington Redskins' general manager Bruce Allen called the NFC East "the SEC of the NFL." If the East is the SEC, the NFC South is the MAC -- a sometimes-brilliant, but utterly incomprehensible mix of first-to-worst, high-powered offense and regular roster turnover. Rivalries in the South haven't gestated for generations. Instead a punt returner getting nailed or a quarterback screaming "Get the *expletive* off the field" is enough to incite low-level fan rivalry.

The NFC South is a microcosm of the NFL itself: parity on a grand scale. Since its establishment in 2002, no team has won the division in back-to-back years. Over this time the division has amassed a total of 16 playoff spots, three NFC Championships, and two Super Bowls in a little over 10 years.

It would be oddly appropriate for the Carolina Panthers to win the division in 2013. This would give all four teams three division titles, but this seems like a long shot in the face of two juggernauts. One that is leaning on age and experience, the other who is looking to rise from a suspension-filled season.

Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta enters the 2013 season with the league's second-oldest roster, but by far the most dangerous in the NFC South. After years of slowly developing an offense, general manager Thomas Dimitroff made bold moves to acquire Julio Jones in the 2011 draft, and used the team's available free agent money to sign running back Steven Jackson earlier this year.

Everything the Falcons have touched in the last two years has turned to gold, and their record shows it. A combined 23-9, Atlanta was only narrowly edged by the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship after beating the Seattle Seahawks.

Dimitroff found a way to make the Falcons even better in the offseason. Replacing an aging Michael Turner with Jackson gives the running game a huge lift, and a more reliable receiver out of the backfield. It looked like the loss of Brent Grimes and John Abraham would hurt Atlanta's defense, but again the team found a way to get excellent players to fill those gaps by trading for Asante Samuel last year, and signing Osi Umenyiora in free agency this year.

No team has been better positioned to win the division twice in a row. The Falcons are the undeniable favorite to win the NFC South in 2013, unless you're the superstitious type.

Carolina Panthers

Panthers' head coach Ron Rivera is on a raft, floating out to sea, and the only bastion far in the distance is an unlikely playoff run. The writing has been on the wall since Dave Gettleman took the helm as general manager earlier this year. He elected to keep Rivera for 2013, but didn't allow much flexibility in terms of the coaching staff around him. Carolina rebuffed the help of Hue Jackson to be the team's offensive coordinator, and chose not to hire special teams coach Dave Toub -- regarded as one of the NFL's best. Instead they promoted from within, and have had no offensive success in the preseason.

Cam Newton is the Panthers' lightning rod, and he's admitted it gets to him sometimes. Newton is quietly following in the footsteps of Tony Romo and Jay Cutler as oft-maligned, but rarely at fault reason his team is bad. This year it's the offensive line's turn to let their quarterback down, as Carolina plans to play a hodge-podge of castoffs, undrafted free agents and struggling veterans to protect their franchise quarterback. It's a good thing Newton is mobile.

It's not all bad in Charlotte, however, as the Panthers have quietly developed one of the league's best defenses. The addition of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short give the unit one of the best 4-3 pass rushes in the NFL when paired with two double-digit sack defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. When you add linebacker phenom Luke Kuechly to the mix, it doesn't even matter that the Panthers don't have a great secondary, they'll generate enough pressure to make plays.

New Orleans Saints

There's a chip the size of Roger Goodell on this team's shoulder, and it's aching to show the entire league that last year's 7-9 finish was an aberration brought on by NFL sanctions. They very well could be right, but in order to make waves in the NFC this year Rob Ryan will need to wave his magic wand over an ailing defense.

The New Orleans' defense didn't try very hard for former coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The team allowed a total of 127 points in the final four games of the season. When it was clear that the playoffs were out of reach, the defense shut down.

Now things are reinvigorated with Rob Ryan. The former Dallas defensive coordinator has moved the Saints to a 3-4 defense. He'll look to use speed to help diffuse the quarterback talent in the division.

The only offensive question is Mark Ingram. It remains to be seen whether the former first round pick can live up to his high billing and become an every-down back. There is some concern he was worn down at Alabama before entering the league. He needs to improve on his career average of 3.9 yards per carry if he's going to be effective in 2013.

The Saints are in the second-best position to advance in the NFC South, but they have to find a way to generate more pass rush. Losing veteran Will Smith for the season hurts. That could be the difference down the stretch.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For a while it looked like Greg Schiano would turn the Buccaneers into a playoff team after their 4-12 finish in 2011. It was Nov. 18, the team was 6-4, and the Bucs could've wrapped up the wild card before Christmas. Then it collapsed. Schiano's team lost five of their last six games, and finished last in the NFC South.

The first-time head coach rode his young team hard, and it showed down the stretch as lethargy set in. Schiano's pace on the field has been matched by his front office, as general manager Mark Dominik is doing everything in his power to turn the Buccaneers into a 'win now' team.

Darrelle Revis' arrival in Tampa Bay via trade is the clearest sign yet that this team wants to be in the conversation for winning the NFC South. They understand that it will take a strong secondary to handle Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.

Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are one of the more underrated receiving tandems in the league. Doug Martin's rookie season was a revelation. The offensive talent puts all the pressure on Josh Freeman to live up to his supporting cast. He quietly passed for 4,000 yards last year, a career first, but threw 17 interceptions and fumbled 10 times. If the Buccaneers hope to advance in 2013 that needs to improve.

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