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NFC South preview

More from Ian Steven, @deevo82. Apologies, these should have gone up last week and thus prices may have changed.

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NFC South

Carolina Panthers

Carolina surprised many people last season by winning the NFC South. The Falcons and also the Saints were perceived by many to be the better football team going into 2013 but tough defense and some good quarterback play from Cam Newton who has started to display some maturity propelled Carolina to the top of the division. Head coach Ron Rivera, much maligned for being conservative and perceived to be on the hot seat, turned himself into a riverboat gambler as the conservative coach displayed an aggressive style of play calling which the fans took to in Charlotte.

Newton has started the season with some sore ribs and on the bench and needs to get himself fit and healthy as the Panthers have a powerful running game, including the large quarterback into the mix. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are a powerful one-two combination and the Panthers need to rely on their running game because their wide receivers lack talent and depth. Especially since Steve Smith, a 13 year player for the franchise, has left for Baltimore. Kelvin Benjamin was drafted from Florida State University, a tall and physical player, but he is still raw and learning his trade.

The big success story for Carolina has been the play of their defence. They were superb last season and were able to shut down teams, providing victories even though the offense did not put up a lot of points on the board. Middle linebacker Luke Keuchly is one of the rising stars of the game. He is the quarterback of the defence and he inspires others around him – and is one of the best tacklers in the NFL. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are quality defensive lineman in a front seven that are very solid.

Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta were expected to push on from the great season in 2012 but they struggled last year. Injury seemed to curtail them and then confidence dipped. Owner Arthur Blank speculated that his team were soft which lit a fire under head coach Mike Smith – who preached toughness in training camp – caught on the HBO documentary Hard Knocks. Defensive tackle Jake Matthews was drafted in the first round to add some solidity to the offensive line in order to protect quarterback Matt Ryan. Jake is the son of former all-pro guard Chris Matthews. Yet another member of the Matthews family to make the NFL.

Steven Jackson remains at running back but I thought that Atlanta would have ditched him. The former St Louis Ram is permanently beset by injuries and spends a lot of the season in the training room.

At wide receiver Atlanta seem set with Roddy White and the Julio Jones - the best duo in the NFL. Devin Hester was brought in to add some spark on special teams but will also play wide receiver. Tony Gonzalez has retired and he leaves a large hole to be filled in the middle of the field. He was the safety blanket for Ryan and could be the difference between winning the division and missing the playoffs.

The defence needs to step up from the other well last season, especially with the New Orleans Saints in the division who can put points on the board for fun. Pressure on the quarterback has been Atlanta's biggest problem in recent seasons and will hope that Kroy Bierman can return to pass rushing form after injury last year.

New Orleans Saints

I believed that New Orleans would win the division last season but Carolina came from nowhere to pip them to the crown. Drew Brees remains one of the top quarterbacks in the league, with an all-star cast backing him up.

Mark Ingram has started to find some form which has sparked the running game for the Saints. They are often thought of as pass first offense but head coach Sean Payton loves to mix in the running game. Marquees Colston remains a safety valve for Brees but it is the rookie wide receiver from Oklahoma State, Brandin Cooks, who has made a lot of people sit up and take note. He seems to be the preferred choice for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Jimmy Graham is back at tight end after struggling with a foot injury last year and if he is fit and healthy, he can dominate.

The offensive line could be below standards that the Saints have set in the past and will be a key factor in the season. They need to keep Brees clean and protected if the fences to have any success.

On defense, Cameron Jordan is turning into a very good defensive lineman. They still have holes on D however and can be exploited in the secondary. The Saints will be an excellent team to watch on television this year because they will put up a lot of points and also concede quite a lot of points as well.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay were the sexy pick for the dark horse to conquer conventions and push their way to the top of the division. There's always a team in the NFL that does well that nobody expects. In the second year of Lovie Smith's tenure at the franchise, the signing of Josh McCown to play at quarterback and the drafting of Mike Evans at wide receiver looked like it could push Tampa Bay over the edge on offense.

Doug Martin returns running back and he can be a deadly weapon if he is able to stay healthy. Vincent Jackson joins Mike Evans at wide receiver, for possibly the most physically imposing pair of starting receivers in the NFL although Chicago would beg to differ.

The problem for Tampa Bay on offense is the fact that their offensive line is not very good. Despite trading for Logan Mankins, there is a lot of holes. The need to protect their quarterback if they are to have any success this season.

On defense they have a lot of young talent with Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Mark Barron. Defense is Lovie Smith's speciality. They will become an elite unit in the next couple of years as the players mature but I think this is a season too early for them and I am not convinced that McCown is not just a flash in the pan after a stretch of good games last year in Chicago in relief of Jay Cutler.

Verdict

I am leaning towards Atlanta for the division but it is too close to call. The Panthers vs Falcons game in week 17 could have massive playoff ramifications. I don’t think the Panthers will repeat as division champions – a feat that no team has managed in the NFC South in what is historically the most competitive division in the NFL.

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