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Sean Payton's return could mean big things in NOLA
Ranking only the top 10 contenders is pretty difficult, so I would be remiss if I failed to recognize a few teams that just missed the cut.
New Orleans Saints
Though the 2012-13 season was a nightmare for the Saints, things are looking good for the upcoming season. Lest we forget, Sean Payton was suspended for the entirety of the season, inflicting turmoil onto a roster that still remains very talented, albeit one-dimensional. Led by Drew Brees and their high-powered offense, the Saints will return to their winning ways in 2013.
You can expect this offense to keep pouring on the points in the coming year, as Brees has shown no signs of slowing down. He just posted arguably his second best statistical year in 2012, and the offense has its usual array of weapons. Despite the addition of safety Kenny Vaccaro in the draft, the defense could still struggle to stay off of the field.
Ultimately, it is the strength of the Atlanta Falcons and the NFC in general that may doom the Saints. While they can't be counted out of any matchup, the Saints have to face the vaunted NFC West. Along with tough divisional games against Atlanta and Carolina, this makes reaching the playoffs a tough task.
For two years in a row, we've seen the Bengals make the playoffs as a wild-card and be defeated by the Texans. Andy Dalton and AJ Green are still inexperienced by most measures, but expectations are higher now. In addition, defensive stars like Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins provide a strong balance to this squad.
In the NFL Draft, the Bengals added two more offensive weapons in Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard. Both players, especially Bernard, should make an immediate impact. In free agency, they signed James Harrison away from the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, fortifying an already strong defensive front.
Still, I see the Bengals as a fringe wild-card team. They call the strong AFC North home and have a very difficult first few games of the season. If they find themselves in an early 0-3 hole, it may be too tough to overcome.
I know, the Lions were 4-12 last year. Still, they have a prolific passing attack and a surprisingly solid defense that ranked 14th in opposing passing yards and 16th in opposing rushing yards last year. Given that they're only one year removed from a playoff berth and much of the roster remains the same, I think they have the tools to turn it around.
Calvin Johnson is still the best receiver in the NFL, and Matthew Stafford has the goods to deliver the ball. While he had a down year with 20 touchdown passes and 17 interceptions, the signing of Reggie Bush and selection of guard Larry Warford should help him out by strengthening a weak running game.
On the other side of the ball, the Lions added defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and cornerback Darius Slay. Slay should make an immediate impact in nickel situations, and Ansah will be used alongside Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to rush the passer. The Lions reside in the competitive NFC North, but don't be surprised if they return to winning form in 2013.