While it's universally agreed that the NFC South has the best group of starting quarterbacks (Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, Josh Freeman) in the NFL, the actual strength of the division often comes into doubt. Two teams picked in the Top 10 of the 2012 draft, one team made the playoffs but only scored TWO points in their wild-card round loss, and one team made it to the divisional round before for getting knocked out.
But what goes up must come down.
The Saints have been ravaged by Bountygate, and in addition, lost key components in Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem. Not picking until the draft's third round didn't help them either. Their arch rivals, the Falcons, also didn't do too well in the draft. as 2011's trade for Julio Jones kept them from making a selection until the late second round. In free agency, the team also lost rising star linebacker Curtis Lofton.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers and Panthers are both on the rise. Tampa Bay added top tier free agents Carl Nicks (formerly of the Saints) and Vincent Jackson, and topped a stellar free agent class with a stupendous draft. Carolina did not make the same free agency splash, but as quarterback Cam Newton enters his sophomore season, all signs are pointing up.
Out of any team in the NFC South, I'd say that Atlanta has the greatest chance to challenge New Orleans for the divisional title. The Falcons play every single 2011 playoff team in 2012 at home, save for games against New Orleans and the Lions, whom the Falcons beat last year anyway.
The Buccaneers have one of the more difficult schedules, despite the low .484 win percentage of their opponents. With a Week 5 bye and away games versus the Giants, Cowboys, Broncos and Raiders, Tampa Bay is set for a rough 2012, no matter how much the team turns around.
The Panthers' strength of schedule is the 10th-toughest overall by the numbers, but they play the same teams listed in the above paragraph at home. Still, away games in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Diego don't seem like too much fun.
For now, the NFC South looks like it will finish with the Saints first, the Falcons second, and the Panthers and Buccaneers battling for third. It is very possible that the third place team will get the wild card spot. Of course, this is just a prediction, but a carefully calculated one.
Only time will tell if these predictions prove true.
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