For the Falcons, they were so close last year to finally breaking through, until San Francisco took it away. They've retooled for 2013 in some notable spots, namely at RB and in the secondary. Out goes Michael Turner and in comes Steven Jackson in order to help spark what was a moribund running game a season prior, and the secondary has been dramatically altered with only Asante Samuel surviving. Desmond Trufant is now in the hot seat, and in this division the secondary is a very important part of success. Osi Umenyiora also replaces John Abraham, and he'll have to replace the sacks lost there. The biggest concern for Atlanta is not making the playoffs, but this lingering thought: "Was last year our best, and possibly only chance to make the Super Bowl?" They had home-field advantage and didn't use it. With the NFC tougher this season, the Falcons might need to dig deep to get back to last season's heights.
The Saints biggest addition is certainly having their head coach back, and it did affect them last year to not have Sean Payton. Offensively they'll be just as powerful as they were before Payton was suspended, but hopefully they'll be able to run the ball with more effectiveness this season. The problems for the Saints has always been on the defensive side of the ball, and they're not going away any time soon, despite the change to a 3-4 with Rob Ryan at the controls. Their front 3 will struggle to generate pass rush, and their secondary is young and can be exploited for big gains. So the story for the Saints will read similar to what it did in 2010 and 2011: Great offense, suspect defense.
Carolina lived close to the edge last season. They were 3-9 before rattling off 4 straight wins to finish a respectable 7-9, which saved Ron Rivera his job. Now expectations are on Cam Newton and company to take the next step, and he'll have to work with much the same weapons he did a year ago. Steve Smith is good, but a year older and there is little depth behind him. Their problems last year were on defense, and they've addressed some of the problems, mainly at DT. Their top 2 draft picks were DT's in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, and they should both help out what is an underrated front 7. Their big problems will be in their secondary, which has holes. They have depth issues at corner while their starters aren't particularly inspiring, and their safeties are poor. If their front 7 can mask the secondary issues, or the secondary itself can grow up in a hurry, the Panthers might be a surprise playoff contender. If not, they face the same wilderness of 7-9 again.
The Bucs have been willing to splash the cash recently now, have they? Darrelle Revis, Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson a year ago, so it's not like the Bucs aren't trying hard. But, as it goes with every team in the league, their QB is going to determine how well they do. Josh Freeman is in a make-or-break season after 4-12 then 7-9 seasons. With all the money the Bucs have spent comes expectations, and they will need Revis to help turn around a sketchy secondary, and mask the problems they have in their front 7. It seems that Tampa has the talent to compete on a high level, but Josh Freeman will make them go, and if it goes wrong, it could be another long season for the Bucs.
In summary... Atlanta is still a playoff team but has their best chance slipped them by? The Saints are going to be back to their old 2010-11 ways with Sean Payton back, but does that mean they contend with the same defensive issues? Carolina will need Cam Newton mature... and the same goes for their secondary, and will the Bucs cash outlay burn a hole in Josh Freeman's pocket in terms of expectations?
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