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South Division

In order of predicted finish (2008 record)

September 03, 2009|Sam Farmer

New Orleans Saints (8-8)

Big questions: The Saints put up incredible offensive numbers last year, but their defense was as bad as their offense was outstanding. Can they patch those leaks? Will the offense be even better now that Drew Brees is throwing to healthier targets in Marques Colston and Jeremy Shockey? Can Reggie Bush put together an entire season of good play? Will the change at defensive coordinator, from Gary Gibbs to Gregg Williams, put the Saints back into playoff contention?

Big moves: Under Gibbs, the Saints defense rarely forced turnovers or made big plays. Williams appears to have changed the attitude of that unit. The secondary is better with the addition of cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Darren Sharper.

Bottom line: The division could be there for the taking provided the Saints' defense improves as it should. Brees' offensive line gave up a franchise-low 13 sacks. An encore performance should mean a playoff run.

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Atlanta Falcons (11-5)

Big questions: Is this the season Tony Gonzalez will win a playoff game? How does the addition of that Hall of Fame-caliber tight end improve an already strong offense? Will Atlanta's defense, depleted of five veteran fixtures, be a liability? Matt Ryan had a terrific rookie season and a horrific, one-and-done performance in the playoffs. Will he take the next step this season?

Big moves: The addition of Gonzalez was huge, and he still has enough left to be a major factor this season. The defense lost Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, Lawyer Milloy, Grady Jackson and Domonique Foxworthy.

Bottom line: The Falcons, who have an outstanding offensive line and a first-rate running back in Michael Turner, could be in a position similar to the Saints' last season -- score like crazy and pray it's enough to hold off opponents. Atlanta's most glaring weakness is its secondary, which has small and inexperienced corners and so-so safeties.

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Carolina Panthers (12-4)

Big questions: Jake Delhomme made an impressive return from elbow surgery before coming unglued with six turnovers (five interceptions and a fumble) in the playoff loss to eventual conference champion Arizona. How much does he have left? Take away Julius Peppers and the Panthers generated almost no pass rush last season. Can new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks ratchet up that pressure?

Big moves: Coach John Fox has a crop of six new assistant coaches and a new defensive system under Meeks, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. If all goes as planned, rookie defensive end Everette Brown will help bolster the pass rush, and Richard Marshall will be an able replacement for Ken Lucas.

Bottom line: The Panthers have never had consecutive winning seasons, and they've got a very difficult schedule this season. On the learning curve, their offense is well ahead of their defense.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)

Big questions: The new-look Buccaneers have 32-year-old Raheem Morris at coach (instead of Jon Gruden), Mark Dominik at general manager (instead of Bruce Allen), and a completely reworked defensive philosophy under Jim Bates. On offense, can the Buccaneers make do at quarterback long enough to let rookie Josh Freeman adjust to the pros, or will they be forced to play him right away (and maybe too soon)?

Big moves: Like their coach, the Buccaneers are young. They've shown a lot of their older leaders the door, among them Jeff Garcia, Ike Hilliard, Joey Galloway, Derrick Brooks and Cato June. The addition of tight end Kellen Winslow and running back Derrick Ward should help.

Bottom line: The Buccaneers will score more than they did last year but are facing an unfamiliar problem -- will they be able to stop anyone? They have a strong offensive line and running game but are inexperienced at receiver.

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