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NFC South Outlook
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Division winner

Order was restored last season with Sean Payton reinstated following a one-year suspension for Bountygate that saw New Orleans fall to 7-9, offering further proof that he's among the NFL's elite head coaches. His renowned organizational skills and the preparation he puts into game plans has helped produce four consecutive double-digit win totals. The Saints have 48 victories over the last four seasons he's been at the helm, which includes capturing Super Bowl XLIV as an underdog. After finishing one game behind Carolina in 2013, look for Payton's team to claim their first NFC South title since 2012. The Panthers won't be as consistent as they were last season, and while Tampa Bay and Atlanta will be better, no one seems to be in New Orleans' class.

Drew Brees has familiar weapons Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Pierre Thomas and Kenny Stills back, not to mention intriguing rookie wideouts Brandin Cooks and Brandon Coleman. Rob Ryan is a quality defensive coordinator who has had an impact helping to shore up the team's biggest weakness, which helps make them a legitimate Super Bowl contender. New Orleans was within a possession of the defending champion Seahawks in Seattle for much of the fourth quarter of the divisional playoffs as the No. 6 seed. With a better draw and a little home field advantage, they can do serious damage come January.

Projected order of finish

1) New Orleans
2) Carolina
3) Atlanta
4) Tampa Bay

Go over with

While the Saints getting over 10.5 wins is the recommendation, has the Panthers total available at 7 ½, which seems like an immense trap. We know Carolina won't be a division power and is unlikely to be a playoff team again, but to go from 12 wins to sub-.500 seems drastic. Don't fall in. The defense will do the heavy lifting, counting on Cam Newton to play Emeril Lagasse and make chicken salad out of those offensive pieces. Even if they're successful and get to 8-8 or 9-7, it's going to be a grind. Up front, it won't help matters that Jordan Gross retired, but having center Ryan Kalil anchoring the line means they should be successful. Newton has to replace Steve Smith and deep threat Ted Ginn, but he'll find a few pieces to develop great rhythm with, relying on timing patterns to methodically move the chains. The Panthers will scrap for everything they get, which may appeal to their fan base, but not to your sanity when the possibility of riding with New Orleans to get to 11-5 exists. I just didn't want to write about the Saints here, so went the cautionary route instead.

Go under with

The Buccaneers could also surprise, going from 4-12 to possibly .500 in Lovie Smith's first season. They need everything to go smoothly in their transition to a new system and new quarterback in Josh McCown, but projection of 7 seems about right. That leaves Atlanta, given the extra wiggle room at 8 ½, as the friendlier option.

The Falcons will be better. Losing Tony Gonzalez hurts, but Julio Jones will remind people just how great he is. The offensive line, if healthy, should provide ample time and space to execute. Even with linebacker Sean Weatherspoon out another season, there's talent on the defense, especially along line especially up front. They'll be able to get pressure. Still, there's a stretch you probably don't want to get caught up in, because there's little room for error. From September 28 to November 16, Atlanta will have exactly one home game. Chicago comes into Georgia Dome on October 12, and a scheduled "home" date two weeks later against Detroit will actually be played at London's Wembley Stadium. The Vikings, Giants, Ravens, Lions, Bucs and Panthers aren't murderers row, but when you're playing all of them on their turf, or overseas, with only one lengthy bye in between, it's very easy to fall into a bad spell. It also puts great pressure on Atlanta to take care of its home turf. Expecting them to more than double last season's win total seems demanding.

Games to watch - September

Sept. 7 - New Orleans at Atlanta: Let's see just how far apart these teams are out of the gate and give the Falcons homefield just to make it even more interesting. Hopefully, both get through preseason in good health and we get a show. In spite of last season's win discrepancy, both meetings were one-possession games that were decided late when the Saints defense held.

Sept. 7 - Carolina at Tampa Bay
: We get to see just how both are planning to score right out of the gate. The Panthers outscored the Bucs 58-19 in 2013's sweep. Lovie's home debut, and probably McCown's, comes against an opponent that has terrorized them. Can another making his first official appearance at Raymond James, top pick Mike Evans, dazzle to help pull an upset?

Sept. 14 - Detroit at Carolina: Regardless of how the Tampa game turns out, this is going to tell us a lot about the Panthers. Can they stop a dynamic offense like old times? Score just enough, or somehow find a way in a shootout? After their highly anticipated opener in Charlotte, will they be 2-0? 1-1? 0-2?

Sept. 14 - St. Louis at Tampa Bay: The Rams are a playoff hopeful looking to continue their ascent, but a second straight home game gives the Bucks an opportunity to position themselves as the NFL's surprise team after Week 2.

Sept. 18 - Tampa Bay at Atlanta: Week 3 begins with a Thursday night battle to see which team has come the farthest. Considering what we covered above regarding the odyssey that awaits the Falcons after this game ends, it's vital they get this one.

Sept. 21 - Pittsburgh at Carolina: Though they've closed out every preseason since 2003, this Sunday nighter will match the Steelers and Panthers for the first time since 2010. Expect it to be a pivotal game for both, guaranteeing a physical battle fueled by two of the toughest quarterbacks in the game to bring down.

Sept. 28 - Atlanta at Minnesota: Atlanta's road warrior mentally would have to start developing here against one-time defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in his second home game as Vikings head coach. Since it has arguably the toughest opening three-game stretch of anyone (at St. Louis, vs. New England, at New Orleans), Minnesota isn't likely to go down quietly.

Sept. 28 - New Orleans at Dallas: Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan got revenge against his former employer in a 49-17 rout last November, watching Drew Brees carve up the Cowboys for an NFL-record 40 first downs and a franchise-best 625 yards. He'd love to go into Jerry World and have his defense put on an equally impressive showing in Week 4's Sunday night game.

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