The NFC South gets a bad rap.
Everyone likes to talk about the rivalries in the NFC East, the tradition of the NFC North, or the dominance of the AFC overall.
Everyone just laughs at the NFC West, but not many people give the NFC South credit where credit is due.
It's a division that has never—I repeat never—had a repeat winner. Last year every team was at or right around the .500 winning percentage mark. You don't see the dominant performances record-wise because these teams are beating up on each other every week. That should prove to be the same story in 2009.
The Carolina Panthers are the defending NFC South champions. They will try to win in 2009 with the same formula from 2008.
DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart will take turns running behind that dominant Panther offense line until their legs can't carry them anymore, and then Jake Delhomme will be forced to throw it.
Jon Beason and Thomas Davis will anchor the linebacking corps. Dan Connor, Na'll Diggs, and Landon Johnson are also around for depth and to compete for the other starting linebacker spot Chris Gamble will be asked to be the shutdown corner, and Ken Lucas is no longer in the secondary.
The Panthers franchised Julius Peppers, but there is speculation as to whether or not the two sides can reach a long-term agreement. Keep an eye on that situation this season.
In case they lose Peppers, the Panthers took Everette Brown from Florida State in the NFL Draft. He can rush the passer with his hand on the ground or as a shading linebacker. His size could be a question, but in time he can develop into a dominant force.
Jake Delhomme is another year older. He is very accurate from 10 yards and in, but that is about all his arm has left. The end of last season was brutal for Delhomme.
Maybe his arm was fatigued coming off a year where he didn't play at all, and he just wore out. Regardless of the issue, the Panthers need him to be the old Jake Delhomme if they have a shot at repeating.
Prediction: 7-9, third place NFC East
The Atlanta Falcons
Arthur Blank didn't try to address the issues with big-name solutions. He started from the core and built the new identity of the franchise step by step in the correct order.
He started by getting a young, smart general manager. He didn't go after the biggest name like Atlanta had tried to do previously (Ron Wolf, Rich McKay). Instead, he chose a young guy from the New England Patriots to come in and try to change the fate of the Falcons. Thomas Dimitroff began doing that immediately.
The next step was hiring a head coach. After getting turned down by Bill Parcells and Bill Cowher, Atlanta went out and hired a coordinator. Mike Smith ran the Jacksonville defense, but wasn't a known name to many NFL fans at the time.
The final piece of the puzzle was finding a new face for the franchise. Vick was the face of the franchise and the Falcons had gone through an entire season without identifying another one. Then the NFL Draft came.
I admit that I was one of the people who wanted Glenn Dorsey as a Falcon, and not Matt Ryan. I am glad I am not in charge of making those decisions. Dimitroff and the rest of the staff he had assembled hit the nail on the head.
The rest is history and, barring injury, Matt Ryan should have a long, productive career that will be remembered by anyone who watches the sport.
The Falcons replace five starters on their defense this year. Gone are Keith Brooking, Michael Boley, Lawyer Milloy, Dominique Foxworth, and Grady Jackson.
The only big-name player Atlanta has brought in so far to replace these players is Mike Peterson, who played for Smith in Jacksonville. He will take the middle linebacker position, and Curtis Lofton will move over to outside linebacker.
The secondary is the biggest question. William Moore was selected from Missouri to try to fill the void of Lawyer Milloy at safety. The fact is that a rookie just can't replace the veteran leadership that a Milloy brings to a defense.
I would like to see Atlanta maybe try to bring Milloy back on a one-year contract, but any move right now in the secondary would make me happy.
Prediction: 10-6, first place NFC South
The New Orleans Saints have a dominant offense. Drew Brees and Marques Colston have become one of the best quarterback/wide receiver combinations in the game. Reggie Bush is Reggie Bush. Jeremy Shockey gives them another dimension (when he can stay out of trouble).
Last year the Saints began addressing some defensive issues by getting Jonathon Vilma from the Jets. This offseason, they went out and got Rod Coleman from the Falcons and drafted Malcolm Jenkins from Ohio State to be a shutdown corner.
It will take some time to adjust to the speed of NFL receivers, but Jenkins is gifted and should pay off immediate dividends for the Saints.
Replacing Deuce McAllister and spelling Reggie Bush may be New Orleans' biggest issue in 2009. They signed Mike Bell from the Denver Broncos and they still have Pierre Thomas, who shined at times when he was given the opportunity.
PJ Hill could be a long shot to make a difference, but when healthy he can be a back that plays similar to the style McAllister brought to the offense. Regardless of that matter, the Saints need a lot of things to go right to be competitive in 2009.
Prediction: 9-7, second place NFC South
The Buccaneers will look completely different in 2009. Gone are Jon Gruden and Jeff Garcia.
Derrick Ward is a new face added to the plethora of running backs Tampa will throw at teams. Earnest Graham is returning from an injury, and should split many carries with Ward.
It appears no one is certain who the starting quarterback will be. Byron Leftwich was brought in, and Brian Griese is still on the roster.
Josh Freeman was drafted in the first round and will for certain be the quarterback of the future, but the question is, how early does the future arrive?
Coach Raheem Morris will get a taste of what it's like to call all the shots. Jim Bates is replacing Monty Kiffin running the defense.
Players like Aqib Talib and Barrett Ruud will be asked to work with the other younger players Tampa has on defense to adjust to the new systems.
Gaines Adams is a force on the end and Chris Hovan is just as dominant when healthy. Tampa has a big learning curve ahead of them, but should begin to build a nice foundation for the future this year.
Prediction: 6-10, fourth place NFC South
So the finishing order is:
Falcons, Saints, Panthers, Buccaneers