NFC South Preview: It's Anyone's Division

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Prognosticators are falling all over themselves to pick the Falcons and Saints as the class of the NFC South - but not so fast, my friends.

The magazines and sites are all popping up with their predictions. It's been interesting to see the Nationally view. And sad.

Sad because every year its the same thing. The experts basically pick the same teams that performed well last season, ignoring the repeated and consistent turnover in the playoff field every single season for the last decade.

Parity in the NFL, catch it, baby!

As we turn our attention to the NFC South - many assume it's Atlanta's division to lose.

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It's understandable, the Falcons were 13-3 last season and hosted the NFC Championship game before losing a nail-biter to the 49ers.

A deeper look into the Falcons though tells us they weren't quite as dominant as their 13 win season would suggest. 7 of Atlanta's 13 victories were within a touchdown and several of those came in the closing minutes. The Falcons were an impressive 7-2 in games decided by 7 points or less.

By comparison, Tampa Bay was 3-6 in those close down-to-the-wire games. Now, you can say the difference was their coaching or quarterback play and you wouldn't get an argument from many - but the truth is a lot went right for the Falcons in 2012. The ball bounced in some magical ways and to expect that to continue may be stretching it a bit.

Add to that, this Falcon team isn't the same one that left the NFC Championship game. John Abraham is gone (Sorry Osi is no Abe). They're playing three rookies in the secondary and they have some significant questions on the offensive line.

They still have newly minted Matt Ryan, Julio and Roddy and Methuselah...sorry Tony Gonzalez still on the offensive side of the ball and they added Rams vet Steven Jackson to replace Michael Turner.

As long as the offensive line can continue to protect and open holes in the running game, the Falcons' veteran offense should be able to put up some points.

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Next up are the Saints. Suddenly, the Saints are considered Super Bowl contenders because of the return of Sean Payton. While Payton is a good coach and the Saints certainly were in disarray last season - let's be brutally honest. In 2011, New Orleans scored 547 points (34.2 per game). Last season without Sean Payton, the Saints still scored 461 points (28.4 per game).

The big difference between the 2011 and 2012 Saints wasn't their offense. They continued to generate big plays and points as they always have since Drew Brees has been in Black and Gold. It was their historically bad defense.

The Saints hired former Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to fix that. Ryan will be switching the Saints to a 3-4, which they don't have the personnel for and they brought in several players to help with that transition - but most of them got injured in the off-season or pre-season.

They're still a mess in the secondary and even worse up front with the loss of Will Smith.

Add to that Ryan is a bit overrated as a coordinator. With the exception of one season in 2005 when his Raider coached defense was 3rd overall in the NFL, most of his defenses have ranked in the 20's. Even in Dallas, which has much better talent on the defensive side of the ball than the Saints, Ryan's defenses never ranked higher than 14th in the two years he was there.

Last season, the Cowboys were 24th in points allowed, giving up 400 points (25.0 per game). Needless to say, New Orleans is not going to suddenly transform into the middle of the pack on defense - which is where they need to be to truly contend in the NFC South.

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For me, Carolina is the wildcard. Yes, there is a lot to hate about the Panthers. Their coach is a lame duck. Their top receiver is 100 years old and they still can't keep their running backs healthy and/or use them properly. They hired Mike Shula and his playbook napkin to replace the innovative Rob Chudzinski as an offensive coordinator.

But they have Cam. Cam had a dip last season, just as all second year quarterbacks in the NFL do. Newton burst onto the scene his rookie season - he was the Russell Wilson, RG3 or Kaepernick of 2011. But as we all know (and properly predicted by yours truly), the NFL has a way of getting enough tape on a young quarterback and taking away the things he likes to do. It's cliched as the sophomore slump, but really its that period of time where the young quarterback adjusts to what NFL defenses are doing to take away his favorite options.

Cam went through that most of 2012 but seemed to begin figure it out the last month of the season. I expect Newton to come back strong in 2013 and if he can get any kind of help from his supporting cast on offense, can be a tough competitor to deal with.

Carolina's downfall could be their defense. While their front seven looks monstrous and they will make QB's and RB's miserable - it's their secondary that has me concerned. Drayton Florence is old and not the player he once was, Captain Munnerlyn scares no one. Charles Godfrey has started a lot of games for the Panthers but is definitely not upper echelon and I actually had to look up Mike Mitchell.

If any of these guys get hurt, there's a huge stack of nobodies that would fill those spots.

Bottom line, Carolina better rush the passer and Luke Kuechly better be the second coming of Dick Butkus - because if they don't do that on a consistent basis their secondary is going to be Bucs/Saints 2012 bad.

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And so now we get to the Bucs. Of course, you're reading this on BucsNation so automatically you assume I'm going to pick Tampa Bay to dominate the NFC South. No, I'm not.

The Bucs may have the best young talent in the division. Much maligned General Manager Mark Dominik has taken his time in building this team. He's had some misfires and he's had his discovered gems. In all, the Bucs boast eight players on the squad that have been to the Pro Bowl in the last few years. They also have young players like Lavonte David that are right on the cusp.

While many point to Josh Freeman as what could be the downfall of the Buccaneers, I don't see Freeman as the obstacle. Freeman threw for 4,000 yds and 27 touchdowns last season. He'll never be mistaken for Brady or Brees but he's hardly the terrible quarterback that many make him out to be.

Freeman is surrounded by great talent. Doug Martin made the Pro Bowl as a rookie running back, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams were the fifth best receiving tandem in the NFL. The Bucs played most of last season without their two all-pro guards Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph. Joseph is already back while Nicks was coming along until MRSA derailed his comeback. He could miss the first few games of the season.

While starting left tackle Donald Penn may have struggled this pre-season, he's slimmed down and should come back strong in 2013. Tampa Bay averaged 24.6 points per game last season and that was without knowing what they were doing. Another season in offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's complex offense should help them immensely.

Defensively, Tampa Bay focused on their weakest link - the pass defense that came within a few yards of setting a league record for ineptness. They traded their first round pick for the greatest CB in the game (when healthy) Darrelle Revis, they drafted Johnthan Banks and signed All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson in free agency.

The Bucs have a star at every level of the defense - defensive line (Gerald McCoy), linebacker (Lavonte David) and secondary (Revis, Goldson).

The question on everyone's mind: Is the rest of the supporting cast adequate enough to have a good defense?

The Bucs allowed their top sacker in 2012 Michael Bennett to walk in free agency (in their defense, Bennett is not contributing much to his new team, the Seahawks, because of a rotator cuff injury - not saying the Bucs knew he was damaged goods but...) and put all their eggs in the basket of Adrian Clayborn and Da Quan Bowers.

While Clayborn appears to be returning to form, Bowers has been a major disappointment in the pre-season and has been benched in favor of Try Hard Teo, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. Teo is a hard worker and a Buccaneer man, but as Sander has said, he's just a guy.

The Bucs may have to blitz and blitz often to get sustained pressure on the quarterback. Last season, that was a disaster. Playing with guys in the secondary who wouldn't start for any other team in the league, Tampa Bay struggled to defend the pass. Maybe with Revis, Goldson and Banks it will give the blitzers that half second to get to the quarterback.

Until we see it on the field we just don't know.

Prediction

So how does this all shake out? Despite their vulnerabilities, the Falcons are still going to win the NFC South.  They're not the team they were last season and cap hell could be coming soon. Their window is closing but it's still open. I have Atlanta at 11-5.

I think Tampa Bay will finish second. This is a 10 win football team, folks. If they don't get there - heads will roll. Maybe not Schiano, but certainly Mark Dominik and maybe Freeman (although I think he'd have to regress terribly not to get a new contract by the Bucs).

I like New Orleans at 9-7. Having Payton back will mean more points but that defense is still going to be abysmal.

I have Carolina at 7-9. It won't be enough to save Ron Rivera but once the Panthers get a few more weapons for Cam and get some help in their secondary they will be a team to be reckoned with.

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