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NFC DIVISIONAL PREVIEW

South

September 01, 2007|David Wharton

2007 predicted order of finish . . .

* 1. New Orleans: Last season's feel-good story becomes this fall's bona fide Super Bowl contender. What's not to like about a comeback city with a quarterback, Drew Brees, who led the league in passing yards, a veteran back in Deuce McAllister and two youngsters, running back Reggie Bush and receiver Marques Colston, who occasionally lighted up defenses as rookies last season. To win it all, Coach Sean Payton needs a stronger effort from a defense that was solid but not spectacular in 2006. Free-agent cornerback Jason David, from the Indianapolis Colts, appears to have won a starting job over shaky Fred Thomas.

* 2. Carolina: An anemic running game got offensive coordinator Dan Henning fired after last season. His replacement, Jeff Davidson, can count on Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith for big plays but must get consistent performances from running backs DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams to take the pressure off quarterback Jake Delhomme, who had 11 interceptions and only 17 touchdown passes. Defensive end Julius Peppers leads a good defense that could be better if middle linebacker Dan Morgan, his career marred by concussions, can stay healthy.

* 3. Tampa Bay: Once a golden boy, Coach Jon Gruden might be fighting for his job if his team does not bounce back from last season's 4-12 record. Gruden is banking on veteran free-agent quarterback Jeff Garcia, who led the Philadelphia Eagles to the playoffs last season. There's plenty of talent on offense with "Cadillac" Williams at running back, Joey Galloway split wide and a young line that should improve with time. But former defensive star Simeon Rice was released over the summer and the rest of the aging unit, featuring linebacker Derrick Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber, slipped to No. 17 in the NFL last season. Like their coach, the Buccaneers must prove they still have what it takes.

* 4. Atlanta: What can you say about the Falcons that hasn't already been printed in the court docket? Quarterback Michael Vick has pleaded guilty to federal charges and faces prison time for his involvement in dogfighting, so Atlanta enters the season with Joey Harrington at the reins. The irony is, this could have been a very interesting year for the Falcons' offense with new Coach Bobby Petrino's high-octane attack and free-agent Joe Horn adding star power to the receiver spot. The defense needs better play from the secondary and some quick learning from first-round pick Jamaal Anderson along the line. But unless Harrington can finally make good on the promise he showed as a collegian, it might not make a difference.

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