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Falcons QB Matt Ryan
Predicted records in parentheses
1. ATLANTA FALCONS (11-5): Have inherited the "team to beat" role, if not the betting favorite's role, in this division as the result of the offseason ordeal in New Orleans. But will Matt Ryan continue to echo his namesake Buddy Ryan in neglecting to win a playoff game?
2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (9-7): For the second time in three years, they take the biggest drop in the NFL in strength of schedule, based on the previous season's records (tied with St. Louis), and you may recall that the first time it led to them zooming from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6 and a near playoff berth in 2010—and wide receiver Vincent Jackson could prove to be the free-agent acquisition of the year.
3. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (8-8): As if the bounty scandal and the fallout therefrom weren't enough, they take the biggest jump in the entire NFL in schedule difficulty (their 2011 opponents were a league-worst 113-143 last year; their 2012 foes, 129-127 in '11), and the 11 teams in the same situation since 2004 (three teams tied for the biggest jump in 2007 and two in 2005) plummeted from a combined 126-50 "the year before" to 81-95 "the year after," and all but one (the '08 Steelers) saw their record drop by at least three games. Furthermore, no defending NFC South champion has ever repeated since the division was created in the 2002 realignment.
4. CAROLINA PANTHERS (7-9): Did they really need another toy cannon at running back, signing Mike Tolbert as a free agent when they already have Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams? Their energies would have been better spent improving their porous defense. It looks like a "hermit's repose" in the Piedmont this year.