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1. New Orleans (11-5): My gut is talking to me on this prediction, as opposed to my brain. With Drew Brees at QB, plus a sturdy offensive line and solid WRs, the Saints will hang points on plenty of teams. The question is, can their defense step up, too? They have a talented front seven, but are a bit leaky in the secondary. Expect a lot of shootouts, with the Saints emerging victorious for the majority of them.
2. Atlanta (9-7): The Falcons are Miami's doppelganger in the NFC. Both teams overachieved last season, and both will likely take a step backward this season before moving forward again in the new decade.
On offense, the Falcons are stacked, especially now with future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez giving wunderkind Matt Ryan a handy red-zone outlet. Conversely, their defense is still at least a year away, so between that and a harder schedule, the Falcons might not earn consecutive playoff berths...yet.
3. Carolina (8-8): Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are the best one-two RB punch in the league. Unfortunately, everything else about the Panthers reeks of mediocrity, from their tepid head coach to their maddeningly-inconsistent QB to their overrated defense. Don't be surprised if John Fox and his staff are shown the door after this season.
4. Tampa Bay (4-12): The Buccaneers are now dealing with both a leadership void and an identity crisis. From Jon Gruden to Monte Kiffin to Warrick Dunn and Derrick Brooks, there are no familiar faces left on this team. What they have now is a head coach who can't legally consume alcohol yet, plus a three-headed monster at QB, and a RB that hasn't done much since his rookie season.
On defense, if a new leader steps up, I hope it's Stylez G. White. Let the rebuilding begin...