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NFC South Outlook
If you are a vegan, like suddenly gaunt former President Bill Clinton, chances are you are likely a devotee of the NFC West. If you like barbeque, Cajun jambalaya and southern fried chicken, then the NFC South is probably more to your liking.

This division has been cooking up a winning recipe a lot lately. Atlanta has made four playoff appearances since 2000, Carolina and Tampa Bay three, while New Orleans tops the loop with six postseason paychecks, winning the 2009 cook-off when they stunned Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLIV.

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And whatever you do don’t underestimate the drawls of starting quarterbacks residing in this southern division, namely Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, Carolina’s Cam Newton, New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Tampa Bay’s Josh Freeman. Collectively they have shined as starters in this league when playing either away (81-60-5 ATS) or off a loss (64-38-4 ATS).

Incidentally, life on the division road has been particularly kind to members of this division as evidenced by its 71-48 ATS mark since the league realigned divisions in 2002. When taking to the division road against opponents off back-to-back losses they respond with aplomb, going 19-6 ATS.

Yes, there’s lots of tantalizing hors d’oeuvres to munch on when sizing up this division and, while it may not be health food, its pretty much finger licking good.

Note: Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.

ATLANTA
Team Theme: THREE TIMES A CHARM


The Falcons flew into the playoffs for a second consecutive trip last season, the first time ever in franchise history. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, former Arizona State head coach, looks to make Matt Ryan and Julio Jones a more lethal force but will need better protection as the big eaters allowed 26 sacks and 84 quarterback hits last year. Atlanta is hoping the top two picks in this year’s draft – G Peter Knoz, Wisconsin and T Lamar Holmes, Southern Miss – in addition to FA G Vince Manuwai, are part of the remedy. They will work with new OL coach Pat Hill, former boss at Fresno State. Along with RB Michael Turner, WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez, the Dirty Birds are loaded with offensive weaponry. Meanwhile, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan comes over from Miami looking to improve on the Falcons’ 29th ranking in 3rd-down defense. While the loss of three-time Pro Bowl LB Lofa Tatupu for the season with a torn pectoral muscle hurts, the acquisition of Pro-Bowl CB Asante Samuel solidifies the secondary. Should all of the new pieces fall into place, a playoff hat trick could be in the offing.

PLAY ON: at New Orleans (11/11) - *KEY

Stat You Will Like: After leading the league in 4th-down conversions in 2010, the Falcons slipped to No. 16 last season.

IN THE STATS: Atlanta was 7-1-1 ‘ITS’ in its final nine games last season.


CAROLINA
Team Theme: AMERICAN IDOL


It’s easy to understand why fans in Carolina idolize Cam Newton. Witness Newton’s work log the last two years. Auburn Before: 8-5. Auburn After: 14-0, national champions. Carolina Before: 2-14. Carolina After: 6-10. To top if off, Newton set an NFL record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (14) while also managing to throw for more than 4,000 yards. It’s no wonder the Panthers more than doubled their scoring average while increasing offensive production 132 YPG. The only reason these Cats failed to become a .500 squad was a defense that regressed badly, ranking 24th against the pass and 25th versus the rush. As a result, former Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was brought in to patch a defense that continually put Newton in a hole. With a laundry list full of needs, McDermott opted to tackle a weakness at the linebacker position, rather than a glaring need for a pass rusher, when he selected Luke Kuechly of Boston College with the 9th pick of the draft. The feeling here is Kuechly will be a franchise player for years to come.

PLAY ON: at Atlanta (9/30) - *KEY

Stat You Will Like: The Panthers are 67-9 ATS in their franchise history in games where they score at least 27 points, including 30-2 ATS in division games.

IN THE STATS: The Panthers are 1-17 SU in games in which they’ve been outgained the L2Y.


NEW ORLEANS
Team Theme: SAINTS MISBEHAVIN’


A storm with the impact of Katrina hit New Orleans this offseason and the damage was nearly as devastating once word got out of a bounty program inside the Saints locker room. It resulted in the suspension of coach Sean Payton and LB Jonathon Vilma for the 2012 season. Lost in the ugliness was the Saints’ third NFC South title in six years along with a franchise-record three straight double-digit win seasons. Meanwhile, Drew Brees’ 5,476 passing yards broke Dan Marino’s record while tossing 46 touchdowns en route to being named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year for the second time in four years. Somehow, despite the gaudy numbers established, Brees remained unsigned at press time, locked in ugly contract negotiations. Perhaps the biggest offseason loss was Pro Bowl G Carl Nicks who signed with Tampa Bay. With DC Gregg Williams gone after being at the center of the bounty controversy, Steve Spagnuolo steps in to direct the defense. Assistant coach Joe Vitt will handle head coaching duties – after he serves a six-game bounty suspension. Not exactly the behavior you’d expect from a cast of Saints!

PLAY ON: vs. San Francisco (11/25) - *KEY

Stat You Will Like: The Saints broke an NFL record with 7,474 total yards in 2011.

IN THE STATS: The Saints allowed five foes season-high, or 2nd-high, yards last season.


TAMPA BAY
Team Theme: OLD SCHOOL


After going from 10 wins to four last season, the Bucs decided a change was in order. Exit stage left, Raheem Morris, and enter center stage Greg Schiano. While Schiano makes a quantum leap from the college ranks (Rutgers) to the NFL, he brings a reputation for discipline, organization and an old-fashion football approach – a ‘180’ from the in-your-face approach of Morris. Schiano last worked in the NFL as a defensive backs coach for the Bears in 1998 and he realizes a lot has changed since then. He brings in new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan to iron out flaws developed last season by one of the brightest young quarterbacks in the league, Josh Freeman, who dropped 20 lbs this offseason. Sullivan, who worked the past two seasons with Eli Manning, will have the luxury of free agents Carl Nicks, a Pro Bowl guard from New Orleans, and Vincent Jackson, a former Pro Bowl wide receiver from San Diego. On the other side of the ball, the Bucs signed free agent CB Eric Wright and used four of their first five draft picks on defense. All old school moves highly endorsed by Schiano.

PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. Carolina (9/9)

Stat You Will Like: The Bucs are 4-12 SU and 1-15 ATS in their last 16 home games when playing with revenge.

IN THE STATS: The Bucs’ only two stats wins last year were vs. the Colts and the Packers.

  
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