Last year I picked the Saints to win the Super Bowl.  This year I’m picking them to lose it.  Either way, they are the class of this division and one of the true contenders in the NFC.

You’d have to be crazy not to want to see how speed demon Brandin Cooks fits in with the Drew Brees-led Saints offense.  He’s certain to open things up which means not-WR Jimmy Graham should have another huge year catching balls underneath and in the red zone.

For years, the New Orleans offense had to cover for a weak defense, but that dynamic is changing.  The Saints had a top 5 defense statistically in 2013, and they’ve gotten better.  Watch out for this club.  They can do it all.

No team got more shredded by injuries in 2013 than the Atlanta Falcons.  Just by virtue of getting all those guys back healthy, the Falcons will be vastly improved over last year.  The team, however, also bolstered the o-line which was a weak spot in 2013.

The retirement of Tony Gonzalez will hurt – Atlanta has no one to replace him – but this unit will still be better than last year.

On defense, the Falcons made some key pick ups, especially up front.  Atlanta will contend for a playoff spot this year, although in a highly competitive NFC they may not get one.

Carolina came out of nowhere last season to seize the South.  Can they repeat?  That seems doubtful.

On offense, Cam Newton has even less to work with than last year – and he didn’t have much then.  Carolina released their entire receiving corps and replaced them with mostly back ups.  The Panthers also ignored their o-line, something they needed to improve.

The good news is that Carolina returns an outstanding front 7 on defense, and that unit will once again be the key to the Panthers success.  But a much tougher schedule, a healthy Falcons team in the same division, and an even less potent offense will likely hold Carolina back.

I don’t expect Josh McCown to suddenly turn the Buccaneers into a winning team.  In fact, if I were them I’d play Mike Glennon and see for sure if he can be an NFL starter or not.

Most likely, Tampa will be in the quarterback derby in next year’s draft.  The Bucs already have some real talent at the skill positions, and the combination of rookie Mike Evans and veteran Vincent Jackson at receiver is intriguing.  They have an o-line that’s a work in progress and similarly, the Bucs are a work in progress on defense too, where they finished middle of the pack in 2013.

I don’t see Tampa challenging yet, but they’re on the right track.

Predicted Finish:

New Orleans Saints (13-3) (1st seed; Super Bowl Loser)

Atlanta Falcons (9-7)

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-11)


Games to Watch:

Week 1 – Carolina @Tampa Bay:  Conventional wisdom says the Panthers got worse and the Bucs got better.  Show me.

Week 6 – Chicago @Atlanta:  Are the Falcons all the way back?  They used to be an unimaginably tough out at home.  If they can beat a legit playoff contender like the Bears, that will tell you a lot.

Week 8 – Seattle @Carolina:  If you love defense, this is your game of the week.

Week 16 – Atlanta @New Orleans:  The Saints choked down the stretch last season.  No two ways about it.  They can’t do that again if they want to make the Super Bowl.