Which NFC South Team Will Rise to the Top?
Maybe it's a good thing to finish last or near the bottom in the NFC South, because the very next year you'll probably go to the playoffs.
The Saints won the division in 2006, one year after finishing 3-13.
The Buccaneers also did it in 2005 after being 5-11 the previous season.
The Panthers went through a 7-9 campaign in 2007 and finished next-to-last. Carolina took control of the NFC South with a 12-4 record in 2008.
Atlanta finished 4-12 in 2007 in the short-termed Michael Vick/Bobby Petrino regime.
The Falcons then became a feel good story by going 11-5, having the NFL Rookie of the Year in quarterback Matt Ryan, and reaching the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-2005 season.
Last season, it was the Buccaneers and Saints who finished at the bottom of the NFC South.
Will one of those two rise out of the cellar and blow past Atlanta and Carolina? Or will it be the Falcons and Panthers again controlling the division?
Here's a look at the NFC South:
Last Season: Finished 11-5, second in NFC South; Lost in the Wild Card round to Arizona
GOOD THING GOING: An already potent offense got even better with the trade for Tony Gonzalez.
Even though Gonzalez is up in his years, he can still draw attention from defenses and create matchup problems. His presence gives Matt Ryan a security blanket in the middle, which was missing from a year ago.
Michael Turner shed the label of "LaDainian Tomlinson's backup" and finished with 1,699 rushing yards and a trip to the Pro Bowl. Turner gained more yards than Tomlinson in 2008.
Ryan has his go-to-guy in Roddy White at receiver. White has back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons and improved his reception, yards, and touchdown totals from 2007.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS: Atlanta will have to find ways to stop the run after allowing 127.5 rushing yards last season. Drafting Peria Jerry in the first round should benefit the Falcons there.
Opponents won't take the Falcons lightly lightly this season after their unexpected success last year.
The schedule will also be a killer for Atlanta, with none of the Falcons' opponents having double digit losing seasons from a year ago.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): The first three games are against teams that had 11 or more wins. The benefit for the Falcons is that Miami and division rival Carolina come home first, then it's a trip to New England.
The Falcons also have a potential NFC title game preview with the New York Giants on November 22.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009: Believe in the hype surrounding the Falcons. This team has come a long way from their 2007 debacle and with the right coaching, a few young stars, and now Gonzalez, Atlanta is on its way up.
THE PICK FOR 2009: 11-5
Last Season: Finished 12-4, first in NFC South; Lost to Arizona in the divisional round of the playoffs.
GOOD THING GOING: The Panthers rediscovered their running identity. It was reminiscent of when Stephen Davis and Deshaun Foster shared the rock during the Super Bowl run.
DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart combined for 28 touchdowns and 2,351 rushing yards. Both men became the new focal points for the Panthers' offense.
Steve Smith may not score as many touchdowns anymore (he had six last season), but his 1,421 receiving yards was his best total since 2005. He benefited from having Muhsin Muhammad on the opposite side. "Moose" overcame his debacle in Chicago with 923 receiving yards last year.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS: Even with a new contract, the jury is out as to whether Jake Delhomme can carry the Panthers to Super Bowl glory.
Delhomme was picked off five times in the embarrassing 33-13 playoff loss to Arizona. He also had disappointing outings against the lowly Lions and Raiders last season.
There is also no telling if Julius Peppers will indeed return to the team. Peppers wants out of Carolina and is itching to play in a 3-4 scheme.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): The Panthers have been notorious for dropping their season opener at home. The first game won't be an easy one with NFC runner-up Philadelphia coming to town on September 13.
Two key rematches for Carolina is the road trip to Arizona on November 1, then a matchup with the New York Giants that could once again decide home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Last season's epic overtime game saw the Panthers blow a 21-10 lead and allow 301 rushing yards to the Giants in the 34-28 loss.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009: The Panthers literally had almost everything going for them until that infamous playoff game against the Cardinals.
Now, a team with so much talent heads to 2009 with so many questions.
Can they repeat as NFC South champs? Was the playoff loss a fluke? Will Julius Peppers suit up for the Panthers? Can Jake Delhomme be trusted? Is the window of opportunity closing?
THE PICK FOR 2009: 10-6
New Orleans Saints
Last season: Finished 8-8, last in NFC South
GOOD THING GOING: Drew Brees is coming off the season of a lifetime with 5,069 passing yards. He is simply one of the five best passers in the league. Brees even did most of his work without a 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver.
Getting Malcolm Jenkins in the draft was crucial for the defense. Jenkins gives the secondary impressive size (6'1", 200 pounds) and athleticism. He will be counted on to contend with the likes of Steve Smith, Roddy White and the newly acquired Kellen Winslow in the NFC South.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS: The Saints were limited to just four picks in the NFL Draft and didn't address the club's defensive line needs.
A pass rush is needed in the Bayou. Bobby McCray led the way with just six sacks last season. New coordinator Gregg Williams will have to find ways to make the Saints scary up front.
The running game also faces question marks. Pierre Thomas led the way with just 625 rushing yards and Reggie Bush scored just two rushing touchdowns. Bush is yet to have a 1,000-yard rushing season.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): After the bye week, the Saints face a brutal four game stretch.
It begins at home versus the Giants, then a trip to Miami, then it's home games versus NFC South leaders Atlanta and Carolina.
If the Saints win these games, they should earn elite status.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009: This division is too tough, but it is also too unpredictable.
The Saints have this to their advantage; the last place team in the South becomes a playoff team or division champion the following year.
The Saints are set on offense. Williams will have to make the defense work for the Saints to skyrocket in the division.
THE PICK FOR 2009: 9-7
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last season: Finished 9-7, third in NFC South
GOOD THING GOING: Young talent is everywhere in Raheem Morris' first season.
The running game has Earnest Graham, the receiving corps has Kellen Winslow and last season's surprise, Antonio Bryant, and then there's big, strong-armed quarterbacks in Byron Leftwich and first round pick Josh Freeman.
Whoever plays quarterback will be in good hands with Pro Bowlers Winslow and Bryant. The former Cowboy, Brown and 49er, Bryant had his best season as a pro with 83 receptions and 1,248 yards receiving.
PRESENTABLE PROBLEMS: Morris has to decide who will start behind center soon. The defense will also have to move on without some familiar faces.
Derrick Brooks was cut and longtime defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin took his Tampa Two defense to the University of Tennessee. Both were some of the faces of the always competitive Bucs defense.
This will be the first time in recent memory where the Bucs will have to run a defense that wasn't cover two.
CRUCIAL GAME(S): The first five weeks feature three road trips. They are against playoff hopefuls Buffalo, Washington, and a playoff team from last year—Philadelphia.
These road trips will be a tremendous early test for Morris and the young Buccaneers.
WHAT TO BELIEVE IN 2009: It really seems like the Bucs were better when they had veteran guys. Now the days of John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks are a distant memory.
THE PICK FOR 2009: 5-11