Our NFL preview, including a preseason power ranking of each division, continues today with the NFC South with was strong at the top last year and a big mess of mediocrity everywhere else.
1. Atlanta – The Falcons should win this division once again, as they are going all in for a run at the Super Bowl, after falling just short in the NFC Championship Game last season. Matt Ryan is back at quarterback with a new contract and the same group of talented wide receivers in Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez, who put off retirement one more year for another shot at a Super Bowl.
Added to the mix this year is running back Steven Jackson, who makes Atlanta’s offense even scarier to face for opposing defenses. The defensive side of the ball is where the questions are for the Falcons. They allowed veteran John Abraham to leave in free agency, although they signed Osi Umenyiora to help bolster their pass rush and used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks to help bolster their secondary. With the kind of offense the Falcons have, they should have little trouble winning the NFC South once again, although maybe not with as much of a cushion as last season, but it’ll be up to their defense to help take them to the next level, which for the Falcons is a trip to the Super Bowl.
2. New Orleans – It was a chaotic season for the Saints last season, but things should get back to normal with the return of head coach Sean Payton. Unfortunately, Payton excels on the offensive side of the ball, where New Orleans doesn’t need much help after finishing last season with the top passing offense in the NFL. The only issue the Saints could have on offense is depth behind their receiving trio of Marques Colston, Lance Moore, and tight end Jimmy Graham, but as long as Drew Brees is the one throwing them the ball, New Orleans shouldn’t have any issues scoring points.
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The Saints’ problem is on defense, where they brought in Rob Ryan as their new coordinator to fix arguably the worst defense in the NFL last year. Ryan has switched to a 3-4 defense and the unit showed plenty of promise during the preseason, but getting the job done in the regular season is another issue. Even with their issues on defense, their offense gives the Saints the best chance at challenging the Falcons atop the division, which starts them off at second in the NFC South power rankings.
3. Tampa Bay – After being the worst defense against the pass in the NFL last season, Tampa Bay made big moves this offseason to improve its secondary, adding free agent Dashon Goldson, trading for Darrelle Revis, and drafting Johnthan Banks. Now the Buccaneers have what could be the most talented secondary in the NFL, as well as a front-7 that was one of the stingiest against the run last season. Tampa Bay is hoping the end result will be one of the league’s best defenses, and it certainly better be, as they’ll have to go up against some of the league’s best offenses in Atlanta and New Orleans, and they’ll need to find a way to slow down those teams if they’re going to make a move up the standings in the NFC South.
Offensively, it’s all about quarterback Josh Freeman, who is in the final year of his contract and could be at a crossroads in his career. Freeman has plenty of talent and plenty of talent around him, but he still commits too many turnovers and his completion percentage is far too low to lead his teams to wins on a consistent basis. The wide receiver duo of Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams should be enough for a quarterback with Freeman’s talent to excel, and 2013 could be his last chance to prove he can excel in the NFL. Even if Tampa Bay’s defense is as good as they hope it will be, they’ll need Freeman to take a big step forward in order to compete for a playoff spot.
4. Carolina – The Panthers may have finished level with New Orleans and Tampa Bay last season, but they’ll start 2013 at the bottom of the NFC South. Carolina finished last season strong, winning five of their final six games, but questions still remain about Cam Newton’s ability to produce wins and not just impressive stats, and head coach Ron Rivera’s job may depend on it. The supporting cast surrounding Newton on Carolina’s offense isn’t that impressive, highlighted by an aging Steve Smith, which means there will be more pressure than ever on Newton to deliver for the Panthers this season. Defensively, Carolina’s front-7 looks strong, and could end up being one of the best in the NFC this season, but the secondary looks woeful and could be a huge problem for them if the defensive line can’t get in the face of opposing quarterbacks on a regular basis. With a sluggish secondary, the Panthers could find themselves in quite a few shootouts this year, putting even more pressure on Newton, which is why Carolina is a distant 4th in the NFC South power rankings at the start of the 2013 season.