Often overlooked, the NFC South has been one of the strongest conferences in the NFL for the last decade and a half. Every team in the division has represented the NFC in the Super Bowl at least once since 1999. Atlanta very nearly continued that trend last season, falling just short of making their second appearance in that span. New Orleans, always a strong contender, should field a much more complete team this year and make a run at continuing the NFC South dominance as well. Even teams like Carolina and Tampa Bay should be better off this year than last. Let's take a look:
Atlanta Falcons: The Atlanta Falcons look to be unquestionably the cream of the crop in this division. With two of the top 10 WR's in the game in Julio Jones and Roddy White, and a Hall of Fame-worthy TE in Tony Gonzalez, quarterback Matt Ryan has more than his fair share of toys in this offense. Add to it the acquisition of Steven Jackson in the off-season (a substantial upgrade from Michael Turner), and it's hard for me to see anyone overtaking Atlanta in this division for many years to come, much less this one.
New Orleans Saints: The biggest move for the Saints this off-season is getting their head coach Sean Payton back for the full season. His departure last year was certainly cause for more than a couple of the Saints losses. Having him back in the fold with Drew Brees undoubtedly makes them a better team. Will they be able to get back to where they were when they themselves were in the Super Bowl? That remains to be seen, but with as much talent as Drew Brees has, I wouldn't be all that surprised.
Carolina Panthers: Although they have been at or near the bottom of the division for years (though to be fair, they technically finished second in the division las year, as every team other than Atlanta finished 7-9), I can't see the Panthers not improving this year. Cam Newton is supremely talented, and with the pass-catching abilities of wide-out Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen, it's really had for me to see them finishing last again. I don't think they've made enough improvements to overtake Atlanta or New Orleans yet, but if they manage to find a way to fix their running back issues, this is a team that in a couple of years could be one of those teams that we talk about as a perennial playoff team.
Tampa Bay Bucs: Quarterback is far and away the most important position in the NFL, if not the entirety of sports. With very few exceptions (like the Trent Dilfer-era Ravens), if you want to make it to and win the Super Bowl, you have to have a very good, if not elite, guy at that position. A great quarterback can make deficiencies in other offensive positions disappear (look at the WR position on the Patriots, for example. With the exception of Wes Welker, now in Denver, they're consistently terrible, but Tom Brady masks that fact quite successfully). I'm just not convinced that Josh Freeman is the type of quarterback that can lead the Bucs to the playoffs. Fran Tarkenton recently commented that Freeman plays "god awful", and I'm inclined to agree with the Hall of Fame QB's assessment. The Bucs have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball (Darrelle Revis, Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson, just to name a few), but until they get a solid QB, they aren't going anywhere.
That does it for the NFC. Stay tuned later this week as I go back to the AFC. Until next time!