Saints (11-5).The Saints have a reasonably nice schedule (after their opening game @ GB) as they play many of their tougher opponents at home. The division should still be tough and I expect at least 3 of the Saints’ losses to come from within the division – but overall this is the best team in the NFC South. Some of the moves I like from the Saints are adding Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, Aubrayo Franklin (who is unofficially listed as Shaun Rogers’ back-up!) and quietly stealing the Packers’ Korey Hall. The guy I think will make the biggest impact is Sproles. Payton will figure out a way to use Sproles more effectively than Norv Turner used him – and that could be scary. The guy is so quick and so incredibly small that secondary guys have complained that he’s simply difficult to see in the sea of bodies at the line of scrimmage, much less tackle. On the other side of the ball, I think the Saints’ D will struggle somewhat. I am not keen on their personnel. Brees and company will be forced to win a good number of games this year (and I think they’ll do it).
Atlanta (9-7). I know Peter King and some others are high on Atlanta this year (King has them beating the Chargers in the Super Bowl). I just don’t think it’s going to happen for Atlanta this year though I can admit, I really don’t have good rationale for believing this. Their schedule isn’t too bad after the first 5 games, their overall talent level has arguably improved with the additions of rookie Julio Jones and Ray Edwards and they had a great season last year, gaining valuable experience as contenders. Yet, part of me can’t let go of the fact that the Packers drubbing of Atlanta last year in their house, was so embarrassing and devastating that it may be the kind of psychological sports letdown that can essentially cost a team a season. Perhaps I’m being dramatic, but I think Atlanta will struggle this year.
Tampa Bay (8-8). This will be a disappointing season for Tampa. There are high hopes that they’ll push for a playoff spot, but I think this will end up being a tough year particularly for Josh Freeman. He grew up fast last year and definitely looks the part, but I think this will be one of those reality check years for both Freeman and the Bucs. Why? Couple reasons. Last year I think Tampa was able to sneak up on teams because teams expected them to suck – but now teams know that they are legit and this will work against them. Also, they will miss both the literal and figurative center of their defense in MLB Barrett Ruud. The guy was very good in Tampa and I’m surprised more wasn’t done to keep him. Now, Tampa won’t be terrible and a few guys, like LeGarrette Blount, might make some noise. But overall, this should be a disappointing season for the Bucs.
Carolina (4-12). Carolina has a couple rebuilding years ahead of them. There have been some significant changes and it’s difficult to imagine Ron Rivera will have this team ready enough to win more than 4 games. I’m not sure Cam Newton will be as bad as some folks are saying. I don’t, in fact, think he’ll be the primary problem this year. Carolina just strikes me as a team that needs a season or so to grow under Ron Rivera. By next year, I think the offense will be more consistent and Rivera’s work with the defense will start paying off. They could be much better next year. But this year may feel like a lost year for the team despite having some serious talent on the roster (a re-signed DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, Cam Newton, Charles Johnson, and Jon Beason).