Cam Newton (1) and Drew Brees (9) will each have a major say in whether or not his team makes it to the NFL playoffs this season.
The Carolina Panthers will have at least one decided advantage against nearly every opponent they face this season, and how well Ron Rivera's team maximizes its opportunities against NFC South divisional foes will determine whether or not the Panthers make the NFL playoffs in 2013.
Carolina's regular season begins with a hot and heavy dose of divisional action by playing every team in the NFC South in the first four weeks.
Carolina will play six non-divisional games before resuming their NFC South schedule with a home game against the Buccaneers in Week 11.
The Panthers will close out their divisional season with a visit to Atlanta in Week 14 before heading to New Orleans to wrap up the regular season in Week 17.
Here is a look at Carolina's advantages against each of their NFC South rivals and how they will fare within the division in 2012.
Cam Newton (1) takes off on a 49-yard touchdown run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Christmas Eve 2011.
The NFC South is loaded with quarterback talent from top to bottom.
Carolina's Cam Newton has a chance to become a top-10, upper-echelon quarterback in just his second NFL season, but he still trails the New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees for NFC South quarterbacking supremacy by a hefty margin.
However, Newton is on the heels of catching up to Atlanta's Matt Ryan as the division's second-best quarterback, and he has already surpassed Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman in NFC South quarterback rankings.
Newton saved a couple of his best performances for the Bucs in 2011.
In his first meeting with Tampa Bay, Newton was 12-of-21 passing for 201 yards and a touchdown in Carolina's 38-19 road victory.
He also broke the NFL's all-time single season record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback by scoring three times from the one-yard-line.
When the teams met for a second time, Newton was a more efficient 12-of-17 for 171 yards and three touchdown passes in a 48-16 Christmas Eve romp in Charlotte.
Newton also pulled off his best run of the season in the second game, a 49-yard scramble up the middle of the field all the way to pay dirt for his NFL-record 14th rushing touchdown of the season.
Tampa Bay's Josh Johnson (229 yards) and Josh Freeman (271 yards) each passed for more yardage that Newton in the Panthers' wins, but Newton was turnover-free in both contests and he accounted for eight touchdowns in the two games.
Despite all the records he set as a rookie, Newton will be expected to improve upon his 60.0 completion percentage and protect the ball better in 2012 (17 INT in 2011) for the Panthers to be successful.
Carolina is at its best when they run the ball for at least 55 percent of their offensive plays (33-27 ratio or better) and when Newton eliminates turnovers and plays efficient football.
Look for Newton to be the best quarterback on the field when Carolina plays the Bucs again this season with two-game totals of 100 yards rushing, nearly 500 yards passing and six total touchdowns.
DeAngelo Williams (34) runs away from the Falcons' Corey Peters (91).
There are not many teams in the NFL who can boast an advantage over the Atlanta Falcons' running game with Michael Turner leading the Dirty Birds' rushing attack, but the Carolina Panthers are one of them.
Turner was the NFL's third-leading rusher in 2011 with 1,340 yards, but the Panthers have arguably the deepest and most talented backfield in the NFL with three returning players who averaged at least 5.4 yards per carry in 2011.
DeAngelo Williams (836 yards, 7 TD), Jonathan Stewart (761 yards, 4 TD), and Cam Newton (706 yards, 14 TD) led Carolina to the third-highest team rushing total in the NFL last season with 150.5 yards per game.
The Panthers could feasibly increase their rushing total by up to 25 yards per game if offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski commits whole-heartedly to the running game in 2012.
The offseason addition of fullback Mike Tolbert from the San Diego Chargers (54 catches, 8 rushing touchdowns in 2011) adds further depth and versatility to Carolina's already loaded backfield.
The Panthers blew fourth quarter leads to lose twice to the Falcons in 2011, primarily because of poor decision making and untimely interceptions thrown by Cam Newton when they seemingly had both games under control.
Commitment to the run starts in the coach's box, but it is ultimately up to Carolina's offensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage against Atlanta so the Panthers can feed their four-headed monster.
That may be the only way to keep Falcons QB Matt Ryan and his dangerous wide receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, off the field as much as possible and to give Carolina a chance to supplant their closest NFC South rival in 2012.
Steve Smith (89) heads into the end zone before being hit in the back after the play by safety Roman Harper in what was likely a "Bounty Gate" inspired collision.
The New Orleans Saints had one of the most prolific offensive seasons in NFL history in 2011.
Drew Brees passed for 5,476 yards and 46 touchdowns, breaking Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for most passing yards in a season.
Brees and the Saints finally agreed to a long-term contract worth $100 million during the offseason, according to ESPN's Chris Mortensen.
However, there is a decidedly more positive vibe surrounding the Carolina Panthers than the Saints heading into the 2012 season.
In addition to their demoralizing 36-32 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 NFL Playoffs, New Orleans just endured their most controversial and tumultuous offseason in franchise history with the Bountygate scandal.
Punishments meted out by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for the Saints' bounty program included the suspension of four players, three coaches and the general manager for varying lengths of time.
Head Coach Sean Payton is being forced to sit out this season and he is not permitted to have contact with any member of the Saints organization.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended from the NFL indefinitely, and interim coach Joe Vitt will serve a six-game suspension to start the regular season after leading his troops through training camp and the preseason.
GM Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games of the season.
Pro Bowl linebacker Jonathan Vilma is actively protesting his one-year suspension from the NFL while Anthony Hargrove (eight games), Will Smith (four games) and Scott Fujita (three games) will return to the field at some point this season.
Carolina is entering the preseason full of optimism with Ron Rivera at the helm and with a healthy defense, improved special teams and a more seasoned Cam Newton at quarterback.
The Saints remain a better team than the Panthers heading into the 2012 season, but all the distractions they faced during the offseason and those they will continue to face in the first half of the regular season have squashed their momentum while Carolina is a team on the upswing.
Only time will tell if the tables have turned by the time Carolina and New Orleans close out the regular season together on December 30, but the Panthers will have momentum on their side heading into a Week 2 showdown against the Saints in Charlotte that could put them in the NFC South's driver's seat.
Cam Newton (1)
My preseason predictions for the Carolina Panthers' 2012 NFC South match-ups.
Week 1: Panthers at Buccaneers
Carolina starts the season with a big road win against the team they owned in 2011.
Panthers 31, Bucs 23
Week 2: Saints at Panthers
The Panthers' high-octane offense and improved defense take advantage of the distracted and depleted Saints.
Panthers 34, Saints 24
Week 4: Panthers at Falcons
Panthers fall just short in their second road NFC South contest of the season and lose on a game-winning drive late in the fourth-quarter.
Falcons 27, Panthers 24
Week 11: Buccaneers at Panthers
The Panthers get their most important win of the season to date to keep pace with the Atlanta Falcons for NFC South lead.
Panthers 35, Bucs 17
Week 14: Falcons at Panthers
The Panthers control time of possession and keep Matty Ice off the field with a dominant run game.
Panthers 31, Falcons 21
Week 17: Panthers at Saints
The Panthers fall behind early as the Saints passing game and Superdome crowd are too much to overcome.
Saints 35, Panthers 21
Panthers' Final NFC South Record:
4-2, Tied for first place
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and the Carolina Panthers for Bleacher Report since 2008.
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