1. Carolina Panthers– They were the surprise team in 2013. Cam Newton matured both as a football player and as a person. After a 1-3 start, the Panthers won eight in a row including back to back wins against San Francisco and New England. They finished with a 12-4 mark and the two seed in the NFC playoffs behind a balanced offense and very stingy defense led by defensive MVP Luke Kuechly. This year it will be a much different team in North Carolina. Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell are both gone, Ted Ginn is gone so who will Cam get the ball too? They drafted Kelvin Benjamin from Florida State and he’ll more than likely be that go to guy come week one. We will also see what this defense can do as an encore.
2. New Orleans Saints– They were a shoe in to win this division last year after getting off to such a hot start. You saw a much better football team with Sean Payton back on the sideline. Drew Brees put together another typical season. He’s so consistent. Jimmy Graham had a season where he emerged as the premiere tight end in our game today. The biggest difference with the Saints last year was their defense. They got after the quarterback and made plays on the football as a secondary. They were great at home and struggled on the road but won their first playoff game on the road in franchise history. They lost Malcolm Jenkins but signed Jairus Byrd and they also signed Champ Bailey. The Saints will be competitive yet again this year.
3. Atlanta Falcons– Let’s go back some. In 2012, the Falcons were the one seed in the NFC playoffs and they were also a game away from the Super Bowl. So, high expectations had to surround this team last year, right? They signed Steven Jackson to bolster up that running game and they were the favorites to win this division last year. The Falcons were by far the biggest disappointment in the NFL last year. Injuries really took a toll on them and they lost Julio Jones for the entire season with a foot injury. The offensive line couldn’t protect Matt Ryan and the defense couldn’t get off the field or stop anybody. With a healthy Julio Jones back, the Falcons offense will be potent once again. The Falcons drafted Jake Matthews to protect Matt.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers– 2013 was a disaster for the Buccaneers. It’s safe to say Greg Schiano lost that entire locker room. Doug Martin went down with an injury and nothing went right for Tampa at all. The Bucs had one of the best off-seasons in the league this year. Greg Schiano is out, Lovie Smith is back to where it all started which is a great move for them. They also signed Josh McCown, drafted Mike Evans from Texas A&M, signed Alterraun Verner to improve that secondary. This could be one of the surprise teams in the NFL next year. The talent looks good on paper but we still have to see them live and on the field.
1. Saints (12-4)
2. Falcons (9-7)
3. Buccaneers (8-8)
4. Panthers (7-9)
I like the Saints to take the NFC South for the fourth time in the Drew Brees/Sean Payton era. This offense is going to do its usual. The defense really regained its swagger when Rob Ryan became coordinator of the defense. I look for them to be aggressive yet again, pressure the quarterback and get those takeaways to give Brees and company the football with good field position. There is nothing more that the Saints want than to have a visitor come to the Superdome in January and we all know that’s one of the toughest places to play.