The New Orleans Saints aren't just the team to beat in the NFC South. They're the team to beat in the NFL, which is what happens when you win a Super Bowl.
But beware, Saints' fans. Only one club in the last decade repeated as a Super Bowl champion. In fact, only one champion in the last decade made it to the next Super Bowl. Yeah, I know, it happens. New England did it in 2004, and Denver did it in 1998, but the odds are against New Orleans.
Of course, the odds don't faze Drew Brees, who was near perfect in the second half of the Saints' Super Bowl defeat of Indianapolis. Brees is one of the game's top three quarterbacks, and he's out to prove that what happened last season could happen again. And maybe it does. But Atlanta won't roll over, while Carolina always plays New Orleans tough.
Nevertheless, the Falcons and Panthers probably push each other for second, with Atlanta the favorite. The only question then is: How deep do the Saints go into the playoffs?
We're about to find out.
Biggest offseason additions: DE Alex Brown, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, LB Clint Ingram
Biggest offseason losses: LB Scott Fujita, T Jammal Brown, QB Mark Brunell, RB Mike Bell, DE Charles Grant, DE Bobby McCray, DT Kendrick Clancy, TE Billy Miller, G Jamar Nesbi, LB Troy Evans.
Biggest offseason move: Re-signing safety Darren Sharper. I know the guy turns 35 this season and he starts the year on PUP, but he played a pivotal role in pulling the Saints' defense together, both on and off the field.
Will go to the playoffs if ... Drew Brees isn't hurt. Face it, with Brees you're never out of a game. He has 68 touchdown passes the past two seasons and was the league's top-rated passer in 2009. One area to watch is left tackle, where Jermon Bushrod covers Brees' back. Bushrod did a decent job in relief of the injured Jammal Brown a year ago, but Brown is the better player.
Rookie to watch: First-round pick Patrick Robinson. A talented cornerback, Robinson has been all over the place this summer, with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams once saying he didn't have "any trust" in him. But he will. Robinson was one of the most physically gifted players in the draft, with a fragile confidence growing as he settles into his new environment.
Overview: The Saints went to two conference championship games in four years, so winning a Super Bowl wasn't exactly a fluke. These guys are loaded, particularly on offense where Brees spreads the ball around to a passel of solid receivers. Barring an injury to their quarterback, the Saints should hold off the Falcons again, but it will be a closer call than it was last season.
Biggest offseason additions: CB Dunta Robinson.
Biggest offseason losses: CB Tye Hill, CB Chris Houston, S Jamaal Fudge, S Antoine Harris, S Charlie Peprah.
Biggest offseason move: Acquiring Robinson. If you're trying to catch New Orleans, it's always a good idea to stock up on quality defensive backs, and Robinson fits that description. He's a terrific cover corner, with durability the only knock. A year ago Brees completed 77 percent of his passes in two defeats of Atlanta, throwing for 604 yards and five touchdowns. Having Robinson in the lineup decreases the chances of that happening again.
|Predicted Order of Finish|
|1 Saints||2009: 13-3 (1st NFC South)|
Pts. Scored: 510 (1st overall)|
Pts. Allowed: 341 (20th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 403.8 (1st overall)
Def. Yds/G: 357.8 (25th overall)
|2 Falcons||2009: 9-7 (2nd NFC South)|
Pts. Scored: 363 (13th overall)|
Pts. Allowed: 325 (14th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 340.4 (16th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 348.9 (21st overall)
|3 Panthers||2009: 8-8 (3rd NFC South)|
Pts. Scored: 315 (21st overall)|
Pts. Allowed: 308 (9th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 331.1 (19th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 315.8 (8th overall)
|4 Bucs||2009: 3-13 (4th NFC South)|
Pts. Scored: 244 (30th overall)|
Pts. Allowed: 400 (27th overall)
Off. Yds/G: 287.5 (28th overall)
Def. Yds/G: 365.6 (28th overall)
Will go to the playoffs if ... Quarterback Matt Ryan is as good as everyone thinks he can be. A year ago he dealt with a painful turf toe, yet still managed to throw for 22 touchdowns. This time he'll have a healthy Harry Douglas at wide receiver and a healthy Michael Turner -- at least for now -- at running back, which means more weapons for a quarterback who can use them. Expect Ryan to be ready for lift-off.
Rookie to watch: LB Sean Weatherspoon. The 19th pick of the draft, Weatherspoon adds speed, quickness and attitude to a defense that could use all three. He can play the strong side, the weak side or line up in nickel coverage, and he isn't shy about telling people he's up to anything the Falcons require. In fact, the word you hear most associated with Weatherspoon is "swagger," which he definitely has, and the Falcons definitely need. If he hits as fast as he talks, Atlanta has a keeper.
Overview: The Falcons won nine games with Turner hurt and Ryan fighting a sophomore slump. So imagine what happens when Turner returns and Ryan is the quarterback of 2008 instead of 2009. On second thought, you might not have to imagine. These guys look ready to push New Orleans for the top spot now, particularly after 11 points separated both teams in two games last season. If the Falcons improve a less-than-satisfactory pass rush maybe they improve the 28th-best pass defense, too. If they don't, it doesn't matter what Turner and Ryan do. Atlanta plays for second.
Biggest offseason additions: LB Jamar Williams, CB Marcus Hudson, S Aaron Francisco.
Biggest offseason losses: DE Julius Peppers, QB Jake Delhomme, QB A.J. Feeley, WR Muhsin Muhammad, G Keydrick Vincent, DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu, DT Damione Lewis, DT Hollis Thomas, LB Na'il Diggs, FB Brad Hoover,
Biggest offseason move: Letting Jake Delhomme and Julius Peppers walk. Both were veteran mainstays of solid Carolina teams, but the Panthers are starting over ... and they're starting over with Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore as quarterbacks. Clausen was the second-best quarterback in this year's draft, yet somehow managed to last until the Panthers found him with the 48th choice. The expectation is that he becomes the starter if and when Matt Moore washes out, but Moore is in charge now -- and he should be. He won four of five starts a year ago and is 6-2 in his career.
Will go to the playoffs if ... Moore plays as he did down the stretch last season. He didn't commit the turnovers that beleaguered Delhomme, with Moore throwing eight touchdown passes and only two interceptions. Result: Carolina was 4-1, including a defeat of New Orleans. A repeat performance could put these guys on Atlanta's bumper, but it's hard to ignore what happened this preseason: The Panthers didn't score an offensive touchdown in four games.
Rookie to watch: Clausen. He shouldn't have lasted until the second round, but you won't find the Panthers complaining. They believe they have a future starter, and they might -- depending on what happens to Moore.
Overview: It's rare to find coach John Fox out of the playoffs for more than a season, but it's also rare to have a head coach in his position -- in the last year of his contract with no extension in sight. I don't know what that means for him or this team, but Fox's teams are always competitive, always tough and usually successful. Only they're trying to be successful in a division where New Orleans and Atlanta have better talent and rosier futures, so we may be looking at John Fox's farewell tour -- without a January encore.
Biggest offseason additions: WR Reggie Brown, LB Jon Alston, S Sean Jones, G Keydrick Vincent.
Biggest offseason losses: RB Derrick Ward, QB Byron Leftwich, WR Antonio Bryant, LB Matt McCoy, DT Chris Hovan, G Arron Sears, S Jermaine Phillips, S Will Allen, DE Jimmy Wilkerson.
Biggest offseason move: Taking defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two draft picks. The Bucs ranked 32nd against the run and need someone, anyone, to plug the middle. These guys can. They can also rush the passer, with McCoy producing 15.5 tackles for losses and six sacks at the University of Oklahoma last season and Price 23.5 tackles for losses and 7.5 sacks at UCLA. The Bucs have spent years looking for the next Warren Sapp, and the search might have just ended, with McCoy the logical choice.
Will go to the playoffs if ... They won't, not if the Saints and Falcons decide to suit up.
Rookie to watch: McCoy. There were some scouts who thought so much of him they had McCoy rated ahead of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the second pick of the draft. All I know is that the Bucs were delighted St. Louis chose Sam Bradford, guaranteeing them one of the two best defensive tackles on the board.
Overview: The Bucs have a lot of young talent, but there's not enough for these guys to contend. Quarterback Josh Freeman was all over the place last season, good sometimes, dreadful others, but doing enough that the Bucs believe they're in good hands. But Freeman doesn't have a passel of weapons, which means these guys will struggle to score -- and that's not good in a division where you're trying to catch New Orleans with a defense ranked 27th in the league. Tampa Bay is at least a year away. Maybe longer.