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NFC South Outlook
NFC East · NFC North · NFC South · NFC West
The Hall of Fame Game to open the NFL preseason is just around the corner, less than two months away. The NFL draft and injury reports from mini-camps steal the spotlight in the summer, but the April release of the 2013 schedule can be a more telling factor in how a team will fare next season. Take a look at the four teams in the NFC South this season. Atlanta ran away with this division last season, but all four teams look like potential playoff teams this season.

Atlanta Falcons: Atlanta had the best record in the NFL last season along with Denver and while the Falcons finally did win a playoff game, they will be remembered more for blowing a substantial lead in the NFC Championship game. All three NFC South opponents went just 7-9 last year, but all three Atlanta regular season losses came within the division. The NFC South figures to again be a very competitive division race after all four teams went 3-3 in the division last season. The Falcons alternated home and road games the entire way through last season en route to a great record and the top seed in the NFC, but this year they will face two sets of back-to-back road games and a couple of long trips late in the season with games in Phoenix, Toronto, Green Bay, and San Francisco. Being the only team in the NFC South that has to play Green Bay is certainly a disadvantage and the South will face off with the NFC West, meaning games with both Seattle and San Francisco. The AFC East draw does look promising at this point and the Falcons will face New England at home early in the season for a Week 4 Sunday night game.

The Falcons will only play two road games against teams that made the playoffs last season, but they are both late in the year in difficult circumstances. The final four weeks of the schedule are very difficult overall for the Falcons, so it is unlikely that this team will coast to a top seed in the conference this season. Atlanta also has an early Week 6 bye week which could magnify the difficulty of the December slate. The end results of the season for the Falcons will likely come down to the division games as they will not likely be able to produce a 10-0 mark outside of the division again with this schedule. Another 3-3 season in this division might mean missing the playoffs this year as the Falcons will play four games outside of the division against teams that would be considered in the top elite tier of the league. All signs point to a drop in record for Atlanta this season with a much tougher schedule in a division where there may not be much separation between the top and the bottom. Atlanta would still be a championship contender if they get into the playoffs but it will be a tougher regular season path.

Atlanta Falcons 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .504
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 5 (three home, two away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 8,317
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2 (includes a neutral site game in Toronto)
Primetime Games: 5 (one Thursday, two Sunday night, two Monday)

Carolina Panthers:
The Panthers were a popular pick to make a big rise last season after a strong finish to the 2011 season in Cam Newton’s rookie year. Carolina opened the year 1-6 for a great disappointment, but with wins in the final four games of the season, Carolina did finish 7-9 to improve by one game from the previous season. In year three for Newton and head coach Ron Rivera, the expectations will be higher this season and a push towards the playoff might be needed to avoid some big changes. Carolina has been dealt the most difficult schedule in the league according win percentage from last year as they catch a tough break, technically finishing in 2nd place in the NFC South last season and drawing the Vikings and the Giants as opposed to the 3rd and 4th place teams that New Orleans and Tampa Bay will face.

Carolina does draw an early Week 4 bye week which does not look ideal, but it will split up a tough early schedule with three of the first five on the road and the two home games coming against the Seahawks and Giants. While Carolina is capable of a big step forward season, this is a squad that could again struggle early in the year and see the tide turn against itself internally. November will also be a brutal month for the Panthers with games against Atlanta, San Francisco, and New England in consecutive weeks. The Panthers will play five straight games against teams that did not make the playoffs last season after that, but it is far from an easy stretch as two of the games will be against New Orleans, a team that will be ready for Carolina after the Panthers took both games last season. Carolina will likely be an exciting team that can compete with anyone and will be capable of upsets, but another mediocre season is probably the most likely result with a difficult schedule and a division that is not getting any easier.

Carolina Panthers 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .543
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 6 (three home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 8,996
Back-to-Back road game sets: 1
Primetime Games: 2 (one Thursday, one Monday)

New Orleans Saints: The Saints had a brutal off-season prior to last season and it showed with a 0-4 start to the year. The Saints were competitive the rest of the way and put up huge offensive numbers, but the defense allowed historic yardage numbers. New Orleans has made a lot of roster and administrative changes, but it should be a much smoother start to the season in 2013 with head coach Sean Payton back on the sidelines. The Saints also draw a reasonable starting schedule with only two games against 2012 playoff teams in the first 10 weeks of the season. There are some tough games on this schedule including road games at New England and at Seattle, but the third-place draw brings in Dallas and Chicago and the AFC East draw presents opportunities for wins. New Orleans is just two years removed from a 13-3 season, so this is a team that is capable of a quick turnaround back to the upper echelon of the NFC and while this is far from an easy schedule it might play out better than the slates that the chief division foes will face.

There are three sets of back-to-back road games on the schedule, including a brutal trip from Atlanta to Seattle in back-to-back weeks, but that difficulty is minimized a bit with the first game coming on a Thursday and the second game coming on a Monday. Overall, the road schedule is very difficult for the Saints as only one opponent finished worse than 7-9 last year. The Saints could get some early season momentum as they have perhaps the most favorable first half schedule in this division and they also have the latest bye week in the division. No slate in the NFC South is easy this season and ultimately New Orleans will need to improve in the divison, starting off with a huge opening game with Atlanta at home that could dictate the direction of the season. Overall, the Saints look like a serious threat to be in the playoff mix if they have a strong first month and can get quickly acclimated to the new defensive scheme.

New Orleans Saints 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .539
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 5 (two home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 9,052
Back-to-Back road game sets: 3
Primetime Games: 4 (one Thursday, one Sunday night, two Monday)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Buccaneers made an early splash last season starting out 6-4, before losing five of the final six games of the season to fall to 7-9. Getting to 7-9 and a three-way tie in the bottom of the NFC South may prove to be a big advantage this season, as Tampa Bay earned the fourth-place schedule for the 2013 season through ‘losing’ the tiebreakers. That advantage is pronounced given the draws of Philadelphia and Detroit versus the teams the rest of the division has to face from the NFC North and NFC East. Tampa Bay will play a team that finished with a losing record last season in six of eight home games this season and while the road schedule is more difficult, five of the eight games will be against teams that had losing records in 2012. By last season’s records, Tampa Bay has by far the weakest schedule in this division, but they will need to keep pace with this strong group of teams as it will not be easy to go 3-3 in the division again like last season when they caught a few teams by surprise early in the year. Tampa Bay does draw both New England and Seattle on the road for long trips and difficult environments, but getting a more favorable set of home games as a result should pay dividends.

Tampa Bay made very aggressive moves to address issues in the secondary this offseason and in this division with three explosive offensive attacks that should be money well spent as an improved pass defense would be very beneficial. Tampa Bay was just -5 in point differential last season, as this was a team that scored more than 24 points per game. Seven of last year’s nine losses came by eight points or less, so this is a team with a serious dark horse possibility in the NFC picture. This should be the most favorable schedule in this group of teams in the NFC South, far from a sure sign of success, but the opportunity will be there for the Buccaneers to make some noise this season and play itself into the playoff mix. That said with all four teams looking viable, someone will fall short of those goals and the Buccaneers certainly have less stability in key spots than the other teams that play in this division.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2013 Schedule Numbers:
2013 Opponents Win Percentage in 2012: .500
Games vs. 2012 Playoff Teams: 5 (two home, three away)
Miles Traveled for 8 road/neutral games: 9,587
Back-to-Back road game sets: 2
Primetime Games: 2 (one Thursday, one Monday)

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