The Atlanta Falcons are a popular pick to win the NFC this season, so it would be obvious to assume that they'll take the NFC South division title for the second straight year.
However, history is against the Falcons when it comes to this matter. Ever since the NFC South was established in 2002 (the Houston Texans were established that year as the NFL's 32nd team), no team has ever been able to win the division in consecutive years.
Whether the second-place team from the first year has been able to supplant the previous year's champion, or some underdog has come out of the woodwork, the hierarchy of the division has always changed from fall to fall.
So if the Falcons are indeed supplanted this year, which of the three other teams have a chance to take the crown? Here are the other three teams in the division, and how they can beat Atlanta in 2013 (in order of likelihood):
The Panthers struggled through the first part of the 2012 season, but ended up finishing at 7-9. Cam Newton struggled through the beginning of his season, but averaged 234 passing yards and scored seven total touchdowns—five rushing, two passing—in the final four games of last season, all Panther wins.
The 2012 season also saw the breakout of both of Carolina's starting defensive ends, Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles) and Greg Hardy (seven sacks in his third season).
The Panthers also boast one of the best young linebackers in the league in Luke Kuechly, who led the NFL in total tackles last season with 164.
Between Kuechly (the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012), Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, one could argue that Carolina has one of the top defensive end and linebacker combinations in the NFC.
Carolina also has support at running back, beginning with likely starter D'Angelo Williams, and including backups Kenjon Barner and Jonathan Stewart (when he's healthy).
Greg Olsen is one of the top five or six tight ends in the league (69 catches for 843 yards and five scores in '12), and Steve Smith is still Steve Smith.
If the pass defense can improve upon their rank of 13th in the league last season (they signed veteran Drayton Florence from Detroit to address that need) and Brandon LaFell can provide Newton with another solid target, Carolina could surprise a lot of opponents and experts, in 2013.
Despite head coach Greg Schiano's promises of a spark in the team toughness under his first year of command, the Bucs didn't really instill a lot of fear in their opponents on either side of the ball in 2012.
While quarterback Josh Freeman improved on his numbers from 2011 (eleven more touchdowns and six less interceptions in '12), the Buccaneers still finished just 13th in total offense, while their defense allowed an average of close to 25 points per game.
Vincent Jackson is one of the top ten receivers in the game, and Mike Williams posted a career high in receiving yards last season (996) after a dismal 2012.
Doug Martin also emerged as one of the finest young running backs this league has to offer, rushing for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie campaign.
Offseason acquisition Darrelle Revis is recovering strong from the torn ACL which prematurely ended his season last year with the New York Jets:
Right guard Davin Joseph is also making a speedy return from his knee injury, which was sustained before last year even started.
The key for the Bucs will be whether or not past first-round picks Gerald McCoy and Da'Quan Bowers can emerge as top-notch defensive linemen.
Division titles, and playoff berths, are often earned by the battles which take place at the line of scrimmage, and pressuring opposing quarterbacks is a must, especially against the QB depth of the NFC South (e.g. Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton).
The offense is now in place—assuming Freeman doesn't regress. It's a matter of whether or not the defense (which lost top defensive lineman Michael Bennett to Seattle this offseason) can bring the heat.
Last year was a nightmare for the Saints.
After back-to-back heartbreaking losses against NFC West teams in the previous two seasons (one to 7-9 Seattle, another to San Francisco), sanctions from the bounty scandal— which was overseen by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who had already left the team—were handed down.
Head coach Sean Payton had to sit out the entire season, and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma was unavailable for the first few games, as well. Predictably, this led to a poor start which the Saints were never able to recover from, eventually finishing 8-8.
This season, though, the Saints have their whole roster, and team mastermind, from the outset.
Drew Brees, who set a new record for consecutive game with a touchdown pass last season (54), returns with the usual bevy of targets to which he can throw. These receivers include Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham and Lance Moore, as well as Darren Sproles, one of the most versatile playmakers the league has to offer (75 catches and seven touchdowns last year out of the backfield).
The Saints also managed to keep one of the best offensive lines in the NFL (Pro Bowlers Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs, as well as rising talent Charles Brown) intact for another year. The key, as always will be the defense, which was historically bad last season, giving up a record 7,042 yards from scrimmage.
If new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan can right the ship in his first year with the team, given the personnel that he has—a solid defensive back corps, but with a defensive line that needs badly to improve—New Orleans could be a dark horse contender in the NFC.
At the very least, their games against the Falcons (both love to wing it, and both play in domes, very conducive towards the pass game) should be barnburners.
Chances are Atlanta will win the division again this season. But if the NFC South has taught us anything in recent years, it's that games are decided on the field, not by prognosticators.
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