Here are my predictions for the 2014 NFC South standings:
1. New Orleans Saints (projected first place) - The New Orleans Saints have retooled for one last run under Drew Brees, and have put everything that they have into one basket, hoping for one last glimpse of some glory days that saw a peak with this team's Super Bowl championship season in 2009. Of course, the Saints were supposed to be good last season, as well, and they were not. In recent seasons, they always seem on the verge of breaking out with a very strong run or season, but ultimately fall short. It is really up to them to change that this year, and make this a strong season from beginning to end. They are in a relatively weak division. While the Falcons and Panthers have both made it to the playoffs in recent years and have talent, neither of those two teams are particularly consistent with success, either. Nor is success for either of those two teams a foregone conclusion, and New Orleans will have to capitalize when either of these teams, or both of them, stumble. Despite their problems last season, the Saints were pretty solid on offense, as usual. They had one of the more productive offenses in the league, scoring 30 or more points five times. What they mostly need is to tighten up on defense, because they were close to the bottom of the pack in terms of overall defense last season. The Saints allowed 30 or more points a whopping seven times last season, and no matter how good their offense is, that is not a recipe for success. In those seven games, New Orleans compiled a 2-5 record, which is testament to their ability on offense to win shootouts. But Brees is not getting any younger, and if the Saints indeed are to make one last run this season, they are going to have to limit the offensive production of their opponents much more consistently than they managed to do this season. This is still a team that could enjoy success, but they simply have to tighten up in their traditional defensive weaknesses of recent seasons. If they manage to do that, this team should win the division.
2. Atlanta Falcons (projected second place team) - Like the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons are solid on offensive talent, but leave a lot to be desired defensively. It seems that the Falcons are always questioned about the same thing: their toughness. They did add some defensive talent to the mix during the off-season, and that should help matters considerably - possibly enough to see this team take the division. Atlanta was not as solid as their 13-3 record in 2012 suggested, although they were also not as bad as their 6-10 mark last year suggested, either. But then again, with the entire season on the line in a winner takes all divisional showdown at home against the Carolina Panthers last season, this team was embarrassed, 34-3. Now, that was an unusually bad game offensively for Atlanta, but it also underscored the traditional problem of not being tough enough to compete at the highest levels. When you have literally the entire season riding on how well (or not well) you do in one particular game (at home), you have to do better than scoring only one field goal all game and being beat down by 31 points. Let us hope for the sake of the Falcons and their fans that the moves that this franchise made to tighten up and toughen up pan out this season, because they really do have solid offensive talent that should make this team a real competitor. If everything does work well for Atlanta, they could easily win this division. The problem is, if the experiment fails, the Falcons might also be at the bottom of the division. So inconsistent has this team been, that they could finish anywhere from 4-12 to 12-4, and it would not be a really huge shocker. But I am picking them for second in the division this year, and a possible playoff berth.
3. Carolina Panthers (projected third place team) - The Carolina Panthers looked very tough defensively in 2013, and that toughness helped them to earn a 12-4 regular season record, easily good enough to win the NFC South and take the second seed in the NFC playoffs. But they got beaten down by Frisco in the playoffs, and then looked miserable for most of the season last year, before roaring back to life in the final four weeks, going from a team that looked well outside of the playoff race, to division champs (and never mind that they were only the second division champion in NFL history with a losing record). In those remarkable last four weeks, the defense allowed a total of 43 points in four games, which was less than they allowed in one game last year against the Philadelphia Eagles. Their offense seems to get going a bit, as well, and it was enough for the Panthers to repeat as division champs. They beat the Cardinals in the playoffs, before bowing out to the Seahawks, and there is no shame in that. But as solidly as this team played at the end of last season, you have to wonder where they were for the first 12 games leading up to that point, during which they compiled a rather poor mark of 3-8-1, and that was after a 2-0 start to the season! In the 10 game stretch that followed the 2-0 start, the major problem for the Panthers was defensive inconsistency. While they had one of the premiere defenses of 2013, the defense last season gave up 30 or more points six times during that 1-8-1 stretch of games of the regular season, and gave up 31 again to Seattle in the playoffs, a team that despite being very good, is not usually known for their offensive explosiveness. So, the Panthers would have to tighten up significantly again on defense. Their offense was far from remarkable last season, but consider this: the Panthers scored twenty or more points eight times last season, including the playoffs, and were beaten in only one of those games (although they also tied one game against Cincinnati). If the Panthers are to three-peat as division champs this season, they simply have to improve both offensively and defensively from last year. The question for the Panthers is, are they closer to being the team that sufferer through those horrendous 10 games when they went 1-8-1, or were they the team that started off 2-0 and ended the season with a four game win streak when it counted the most? Time will tell, and it is very hard to know for sure with this team.
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers - (projected last place) - Tampa Bay had rebuilt their defense in the off-season a couple of years ago, and many expected them to make a lot of noise. Instead, they were one of the worst teams in the league. Last year, they made a flashy move by changing their uniforms in the off-season to look more dynamic, or whatever they were trying to achieve. But on the field of play, where it mattered most, they literally were ranked as the worst team in the league, but obtained the consolation prize of the first pick in the draft. And boy, did they need it! Tampa Bay's defense, which was considered the strength of this team, gave up 410 points all season. There were two games in particular when the defense go scorched, allowing 48 points against Baltimore and a whopping 56 points at Atlanta! Other than those two games in particular, the defense was not that bad, although they were hardly stood out for toughness and solid play, either. But as bad as things were for this team defensively, their offense was even worse! They scored 20 or more points only four times last year, and it was during those four games when the Buccaneers won the two games that they managed to win in what proved to be a truly miserable season for the franchise. But the Bucs used that first pick in the draft to obtain Jameis L. Winston, and will now bank on him to help reverse the team's poor fortunes as of late. They also retooled their offensive line, and made some major moves to improve their defense. Once again, there is a buzz about this team, although the same old questions remain about whether this is all hype, or if this team can actually be more productive and effective on the football field this season. Considering how bad they were last year, almost anything would be an improvement.