New Orleans Saints (11-5). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that NFL Commissioner/Warden/Playa Hater Roger Goodell screwed over the Saints. Suspending coach Sean Payton for the entire season as well as levying partial suspensions to Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, and a member of the defensive coaching staff on little to no evidence of having bounties was beyond fucked up(while the Patriots received what amounted to a slap on the wrist for their “Spygate” scandal). New Orleans was behind the 8-ball before the season started, and their 8-8 record was proof of that.
Now that those aforementioned parties are back for a full season, I expect the Saints to come out with a vengeance. I think Payton is going to pull a “Bill Bellicheat after Spygate” and run up the score on opponents, not to mention be ultra-aggressive with little abandon. I also expect a big year from the defense – Vilma will make sure of that. Hell, could the defense be worse than being ranked “dead freaking last” in almost every statistical category?
Toughest Games: at Bears, at Patriots, vs. Cowboys, vs. 49ers, at Seahawks and both games against the Falcons.
Atlanta Falcons (11-5). The Falcons figure to still be a force in the NFC this season. Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez wants to go out with a bang, and will have plenty of help doing so with QB Matt Ryan leading the way. That, combined with the awesome wide receiver duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones – along with the underrated acquisition of running back Steven Jackson from St. Louis via free agency – should give the Falcons one of the more potent offenses in the NFL.
I think that while the defense is much improved, led by Asante Samuel and free agent pick up Osi Umenyiora, I’m not 100% sold on the Falcons’ D taking the team to the next level. Now if Atlanta does improve its play on defense, then not only will the Falcons win the division, they will challenge the 49ers for NFC supremacy.
Toughest Games: vs. Patriots, vs. Seahawks, at Packers, vs. Redskins, at 49ers and both games against the Saints.
Carolina Panthers (8-8).
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8).
Both of these teams are hard to predict. The Panthers and Bucs can either exceed expectations or underachieve once again. Either way, both teams’ seasons will be determined by the play of their quarterbacks Cam Newton and Josh Freeman, respectively. Carolina and Tampa Bay have talent on both sides of the ball, so both quarterbacks have no excuses heading into this season. Something tells me both QBs will come up just a bit short this season.