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NFC South 2013 Preview: Atlanta Falcons Facing a Three-Way Surge
It's so easy to forget how good the NFC South division is. From a talent standpoint alone the rosters are packed with offensive and defensive standouts, especially the quarterbacks. Of the four teams though the most consistent of the group usually wins. That has been the Atlanta Falcons. They breezed to a 13-3 record last season, claiming their second division title in three years and won their first playoff game since 2002. Sadly their Super Bowl hopes ended just a few yards short in the NFC Championship but their aspirations remains high. The question is will the rest of the division let them get that far?
Carolina Panthers - Cam Newton needs help from the defense
No team needed a solid off-season more than the Carolina Panthers. Not only do they face the toughest schedule going into 2013 (138-116-2 opposing records in 2012), but they must also find a way to get over the loss of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski who took over as head coach in Cleveland. A key to that is quarterback Cam Newton putting in the necessary work to continue his development. However, he also will need help from his defense. Though they ranked 10th overall last season, they were 18th in points allow (22.7 per game) and 19th against the run (110 yards allowed per game). Fixing that problem had to start up front where Carolina was very weak at defensive tackle. That is why loads of optimism centers around rookies Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. The Panthers scooped them up in the 1st and 2nd rounds of the draft and both were highly rated prospects at one of the deepest positions in the draft class. If they can fortify the interior of the line, then the deadly pass rush of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy can have Carolina thinking big.
New Orleans Saints - Sean Payton back in the saddle
Nobody knows what a head coach is worth until he's gone. Sean Payton paid for the Bountygate scandal by sitting out the entire 2012 season. In his absence the New Orleans Saints went from a 13-3 powerhouse to a 7-9 afterthought. While Drew Brees did a fine job leading the typically high octane Saints offense, the defense fell apart. New Orleans also didn't plays with its customary edge and precision they had under Payton. So it was no surprise when the team made sure to hand him an extension once his suspension was completed. Tanner and leaner, he is back with the simplest job ahead of him which is get the Saints back to the playoffs. Part of that mission started when he hired new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to help fix the league-worst defensive. They also signed corner Keenan Lewis in free agency and drafted safety Kenny Vaccaro. Those moves should help matters, and there is no reason to think a reunion between Payton and Brees is anything but positive. Naturally it may take time for things settle back in but all told New Orleans is as dangerous as ever with their head man back in charge.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Darrelle Revis brings his island south
Judging solely on talent and it is puzzling how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't made the playoffs. Their quarterback Josh Freeman threw for over 4,000 yards and notched 27 touchdowns last season. Running back Doug Martin piled up over 1,400 yards and receiver Vincent Jackson reached another Pro Bowl. The problems it seemed were centered on the defense where they ranked dead last against the pass last season. Head coach Greg Schiano and the front office set about fixing that this off-season. Their solution was simple and aggressive, trading their 2013 first round pick for All-Pro corner Darrelle Revis. Arguably the best cover man in football, his addition along with Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson gives the secondary an entirely new look. Suddenly a unit that couldn't stop anything in the air may be able to stop everything. That should create even more opportunities for Freeman and the offense. Teams have certainly won with less. Then again it all comes down to how healthy Revis is after a knee injury ended his season a year ago. That is what Bucs fans will be watching for.
Atlanta Falcons - Matt Ryan looking to finish what he started
There really isn't much not to like about the Atlanta Falcons. They spent most of their off-season wisely. Tony Gonzales is back for another year. Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson came in via St. Louis. Osi Umenyiora hopes to invigorate a lacking pass rush and 1st round pick Desmond Trufant figures to boost their pass coverage. Either way, with Matt Ryan throwing to Roddy White and Julio Jones the prospects for Atlanta look just as rosy as last season. If anything the Falcons could be more dangerous than a year ago give the improvements on defense. Amazingly that may still not be enough given how much their division rivals have improved as well. More than ever it is up to Ryan to carry the load, especially given 2013 is a contract year for him. There are no guarantees. Then again there rarely are in this division.