Three of the four teams in the NFC South have a legitimate shot at winning the division. The Atlanta Falcons are the only team out of the running, but this is considered a rebuilding year for them. They have already named former Boston College standout Matt Ryan as their starting quarterback.
A first-string rookie quarterback is a microcosm of his team. Like his team, he is not ready to be a league standout. Like his team, he will take regular weekly beatings. Like his team, he will make costly errors. And like his team, he labors in the hopes that his ordeal will make him better in the long run.
History suggests the opposite scenario.
Since it takes a couple of years to fully learn an NFL playbook, starting rookie QBs typically learn on the fly, working behind subpar offensive lines while trying to read aggressive defenses led by aggressive coordinators. The physical and mental beatings -- magnified by a constantly-growing media -- are more likely to break a young passer than make him stronger. Ask David Carr. Or Alex Smith.
I said all that so I could say this: Atlanta is probably making a mistake in starting Ryan. But it wouldn't be the first time the Falcons made an erroneous quarterback decision (Michael Vick, anyone?).
In the wide-open NFC South, only one thing is certain: The Falcons will finish last.
There are a lot of questions with this team, not the least of which is this: Will Reggie Bush become the back everyone believed he would be? Whether he justifies his salary or not, this team is offensively loaded. Drew Brees, Deuce McAllister, Marques Colston, and a rejuvenated Jeremy Shockey figure to put lots of points on the scoreboard. But can they stop anyone?
Circle this date: Oct. 26, vs. San Diego (in London). Drew Brees doesn't have a cross word to say about the team that dissed him in favor of Phillip Rivers, but you can bet he's looking forward to this game.
Outlook: I don't think this team is a fluke. Sean Payton has put together a team that prides itself on its toughness and consistency. I expect to see them at or near the top of the division for the next few years.
Projected finish: 11-5, good enough for tops in the division. And maybe even a first-round playoff win.
There is something about Jeff Garcia that teams seem to dislike. He was jettisoned in his prime by the 49ers. He was run out of town in Cleveland and Detroit. And after a Pro Bowl season that seemed to trumpet the rebirth of his career, the Buccaneers tried to get the recently-unretired Brett Favre. If he weren't married to the 2004 Playboy Playmate of the Year, Jeff might be feeling a little insecure.
Circle this date: November 30, vs. New Orleans. Garcia and Drew Brees shoot it out in a game that could have serious playoff implications.
Outlook: Defensive toughness will make up for the Bucs' lack of a consistent running game. Garcia has another solid season, but, at age 38, how many solid seasons does he have left?
Projected finish: 10-6.
Let's see...a quarterback coming off Tommy John surgery, a star receiver serving a two-game suspension, the lack of a proven running back...doesn't look good. But John Fox knows how to do more with less, and the Panthers always seem to be in the thick of things near season’s end.
Circle this date: Sept. 21, at Minnesota Vikings. This should be Steve Smith's first game back from a suspension (levied by the team after Smith broke his teammate's nose in a fight). Expect him to have a breakout game.
Outlook: The Panthers have talent, but something always seems to be in their way. This year, it's several somethings. Jake Delhomme's elbow, Smith's shortened season, a revamped offensive line, and a decimated defensive line.
Projected finish: 8-8.
When your best player gets banned from the league and hauled off to Leavenworth, you’ve got problems. These guys have problems. They've got a rookie quarterback in Ryan, a running back (Michael Turner) who is unproven as a starter, and they have had several key losses on both sides of the ball.
Circle this date: Oct. 5, at Green Bay Packers. This is my Upset Special. If the Falcons can pull this one off, they might even parlay it into a two-game winning streak with an Oct. 12 victory over the Chicago Bears. Hey, anything’s possible. Kevin Garnett said so.
Outlook: Bleak. This is probably the worst team in the National Football League.
Projected finish: 3-13.