It ain't over til it's over. The North is strong this year, but the South answers with a division that doesn't have many pushover either and isn't quite as top heavy.
Projected Winner: Atlanta Falcons. If there's ever a year to overtake the Saints, it's this year. Julio Jones will be entering his second season, Roddy White is still terrific, and Matt Ryan has entered his peak years. This team is as strong on paper as it's been in awhile. They lost Curtis Lofton to their division rivals from New Orleans, but I still see them scoring enough points to make that loss negligible. Hard to imagine the Saints missing the playoffs though, I see them battling for a wild card spot until the very end.
"X" Factor: Josh Freeman. If Tampa wants to return to the form that made them a surprise contender in 2010, Freeman has got to play like he did in his second season. The spike in turnovers was shocking. Sure he wasn't going to stay at below 10 picks every season for the rest of his career, but he looked well on his way to being one of the best signal callers in the game. This is a big season for Freeman with Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Dallas Clark in need of a guy who can get them the football on a regular basis.
Atlanta Falcons: Like I said earlier, this is the strongest Falcons team we've seen in awhile. Some might say I'm overrating them, but the White/Jones combo is just too much for me to ignore. I can't wait to see them in action together again. The defense is going to take a hit without Curtis Lofton running things, but they were the number 4 weighted D in the league last year, I imagine that the unit will be strong enough to maintain throughout the regular season. Asante Samuel was an absolute steal, he's a huge boost in their coverage and cost them basically nothing. If I could have picked one offseason transaction to give to the Titans, this would be it. You won't find many Asante Samuel's in the sixth round, great move by Atlanta's front office.
Carolina Panthers: This team is quietly making moves to get a lot better really quickly. Charles Johnson continues to produce from the defensive end spot and should be good into his early 30's barring injury. Cam Newton looks like a league-changer. He'll be an absolute force for a long time, and that's probably an understatement, I could go on for days about the guy and what his ascension means for the league. The backfield is the deepest and maybe most talented in football. Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart are all number one backs on about half of the league's teams. Unfortunately, games aren't won on the ground, and unless Newton continues to improve as a passer (he had a pretty rough second half last year), they won't be going anywhere fast, even with Beason and Kuechly roaming the middle of what should be an improved defense. Give em three years, they'll get there with a couple of decent drafts.
New Orleans Saints: I don't know how much I believe in the mental aspect of not having the head coach around, but I think that any time the Saints struggle, that's the excuse we're going to hear. As long as Drew Brees is around, they'll be just fine. They should be right in the thick of things with Atlanta for the division crown. They stole Curtis Lofton to improve the defense and picked up Ben Grubbs to replace Carl Nicks along the line, so I don't expect a big downgrade there. Overall, this team could be just as good as the one that looked like one of the best in football all year last season. Unfortunately for them, I just don't know that they'll be able to get past the Falcons who seem like they may be the more complete team. The deep pass really killed these guys last year, as they gave up more passes of 40+ yards than any other team in football, and they did little to address that.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Conventional wisdom says you can't build a team on free agency. I tend to disagree. I think that the additions of Vincent Jackson and Dallas Clark are going to go a long way into shaping this team for the near future. They have a talented defensive line and the secondary has some big names, but overall this is a unit that finished 31st overall last year. Expect improvement, but this could still be the Achilles heel. Basically I think this team can go as far as Josh Freeman carries them. He's very talented, sort of a Cam Newton lite, but he really needs to cut down on turnovers. LeGarrette Blount continues to mystify us with his circus freak runs, but remains a largely inefficient runner. Great job of stealing Carl Nicks from New Orleans to help protect their most important player.
This has the potential to be a very tough division. Tampa should be better, as should Carolina. Overall though, I'm not sure that the team that comes out alive is going to have much of a shot of winning it all. Atlanta and New Orleans will be tough, but not unbeatable. The other two could be early surprise contenders before fading in the second half.