1) New Orleans Saints – The Saints were really good a couple years ago. But it was simply too much too soon for Sean Payton. They had a well-balanced team with some exciting players. This year, they will get their defensive edge back (especially after cutting CB Jason David) and they will be a powerhouse on offense. McAllister is back, but Reggie Bush is primed for a breakout season. He has absolutely unreal tools and if he can stay injury-free, he will put these skills on display this year. Drew Brees is great and this year he will be the best QB in the NFL. Not Brady, not either Manning, not Romo – but Brees. He has had a very good NFL career so far and this year he will really deliver. Shockey will be a huge addition and give the offense yet another scary option. 13-3.
2) Carolina Panthers – I used to always argue that just having John Fox is enough to keep Carolina in the running, but I’m not so sure anymore. DeAngelo Williams could be good this year as the starting RB and many also think rookie RB Jon Stewart will contribute significantly. Not only do they have Steve Smith, but they also have Dwayne Jarrett. Jarrett could be much better than he was last year with some more guidance and hopefully, maturity. Still, unless Delhomme is Pro Bowl caliber, this team will not do much. They are a sexy playoff pick every year it seems by many “experts”, but I don’t think this year the “experts” are even picking them to do anything. 8-8.
3) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Possible crack alert here…TB could suffer from an unexpectedly weak season. Many saw them get to the playoffs last year and assume it will happen again. But I believe last year was an anomaly. The flirting they did with Favre was a mistake – they should have gone after him hard or not at all. It reduced the confidence Garcia feels and the the team will feel with him in there. Garcia somehow manages to be effective as a QB year in and year out (I’m never really sure how frankly – such an ugly style), but this year, he will not be that good, TB will be weak and John Gruden’s face will continue to be contorted strangely. 6-10.
4) Atlanta Falcons – The Falcons were in the playoffs for several years around the turn of the century, but they really suck now. Art Blank has seen his superstar QB Michael Vick go to jail, his potential superstar back-up Matt Schaub bolt for Houston and a host of receivers leave at their soonest opportunity. Matt Ryan has a big job in front of him. But somehow, of all the recent young QBs who’ve been drafted, I think he may have the best chance of being good. Not only is he just plain good to begin with, but he was coached by a former NFL O-Coordinator Jeff Jagodhaohiibasdbuwefua fihasde – from the Packers, so he may have gotten a small taste of an NFL designed offense in college. Couple the potential for some un-rookie-like play from him with a seriously improved running game with Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood and Atlanta may not end up as bad as many think. In fact, the Turner/Norwood duo could be one of the duos that many analysts will be talking about by the end of the year. It won’t be enough though. This team will struggle. They will get some gift home wins due to some Leslie Nielsen Naked Gun like officiating – but that’s about it. 5-11.