CAROLINA blew us all away last year but will they dominate again this time round? Louis Ross (@LouisRoss67) shares his thoughts.
NFC South | 8th September 2016
A start of 6-1 had the Falcons fans excited to the point of the club maybe not needing to ‘help' the atmosphere in the stadium. A finish of 8-8 had them reaching for the ‘enhance stadium noise' button once again.
Yes, the Falcons were still adapting to a new Head Coach in Dan Quinn and the schemes of new Offensive Co-ordinator Kyle Shanahan but still. Two wins in the last nine games was really not good. Especially when Matt Ryan has a weapon like Julio Jones downfield.
There is reason for optimism in Atlanta. Julio could go close to the elusive 2000 yard season. Roddy White and Devin Hester are no more but Mohammed Sanu arrives from the Bengals and could be a more than adequate second receiver.
Aldrich Robinson caught three passes for 118 yards on debut and JD Mckissick's first touch in pro football was a 101 yard kick off return. Pro Bowl Centre, Alex Mack arrives from Cleveland and will provide Matt Ryan with much needed protection.
Adding seven time Pro Bowler, Dwight Freeney can only help a defence that ranked dead last with a paltry 19 sacks last time. The Falcons have not actually finished higher than 28th in that category since 2012. Freeney himself managed eight sacks in 11 games for Arizona in 2015.
I still like Atlanta despite that disastrous ending to last season. Matt Ryan has four straight seasons with over 4500 passing yards. Freeman finally proved himself an elite back with 73 catches and a 1056 yards rushing. Jones somehow managed to catch 136 passes for an incredible 1871 yards. In an 8-8 team, the guy had the 2nd best receiving season in history.
Prediction: Will go close to a wildcard. Might just manage 10 wins. Dark horses
I don't know about you but I am still a bit stunned by what Carolina did last year. How on earth did they manage a 15-1 season with Jerrico Cotchery and Ted Ginn catching most of the passes?
They were both brilliant and fairly unlikeable at the same time. I don't think too many people were upset that after storming to the Super Bowl they suffered a shock defeat to Denver.
They are quite possibly the hardest team to call in the NFL this year. They will have some major improvements. Cam Newton has changed his game quite a lot. There is nowhere near as much running as there was previously and his arm has certainly improved.
His favourite target, Kelvin Benjamin returns after missing the entire season through injury. His 2014 rookie season saw him catch 73 passes for 1008 yards and nine touchdowns. That gives Cam so much more to look for especially as Devin Funchess can only continue to improve. Cam will pass more from the pocket again but expect more passes to the running backs as well as read options.
It's on defence that I am concerned for them. Charles Tillman, Roman Harper and the brilliant Josh Norman have gone from the secondary. Charles Johnson will return at Defensive End after missing the last 12 months. He will hope to replicate his run of 52 sacks between 2010 and 2014.
However, rookie Cornerbacks, James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zach Sanchez will do well to come through six games against Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Jameis Winston unscathed.
Prediction: 11-5 Division winners but early playoff exit
New Orleans Saints
The 2009 champions have not been back to the playoffs since 2013. It is hard to see that changing anytime soon. A great shame as many have great affection for the Saints and particularly their legendary Quarterback.
These Saints had all kinds of issues on the way to a disappointing 7-9 season last time out. Defence was possibly the biggest of those issue. Giving up a massive 413 yards per game, a category in which they ranked 31 of 32.
Defensive coordinator Rex Ryan was unsurprisingly fired after 10 games in favour of Dennis Allen. The broken fibula for Defensive Tackle Sheldon Rankins did not help but the whole unit needed upgrading.
Von Bell and Nick Fairley have been brought onboard and James Laurinitis could prove an outstanding leader after arriving from the Rams. Roman Harper will jump back in at safety.
The Saints all time leading receiver, Marques Colston has played his last game. Brandin Cooks impressed last season but will need to step up. 2nd round pick Michael Thomas from Ohio State and Willie Snead can provide support whilst Mark Ingram at running back will need to stay fit to provide some balance. Coby Fleener comes in from Detroit to replace Ben Watson at Tight End.
The key as always will be the quite brilliant Drew Brees. He once again at the age of 36, led the entire NFL in passing with 4870 yards. He should go over 5000 this time.
Prediction: 8-8/9-7 that kind of thing. Ok-ish.
Tampa Bay Bucaneers
Lovie Smith is gone. Long live Lovie Smith. As some Bucs and Bears fans never said. Everyone loves Lovie. I'm just not sure why.
Last year's Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter takes over from Lovie and has a chance. Bettering 6-10 with Jameis Winston hoping his promising rookie season is the start of a stellar career at Quarterback, Koetter at least takes over a team on the up.
Having not won a playoff game since winning Super Bowl 37 in 2002, Koetter has no glittering past to live up to. He's got the number one draft pick of 2015 under centre and an offence powered by the straight line running of Doug Martin and Charles Sims. Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and Austin Sefarious Jenkins should provide Winston with plenty of targets downfield.
Evans is a little bit of a concern. Just three touchdowns last year following 12 in his rookie season, he also has a bad habit of dropping passes. He led the league last year in that category including five in one game.
Former Falcons Head Coach Mike Smith has been brought in to overhaul the defensive unit. Smith used a first round draft pick to get Vernon Hargreaves and has recruited for Robert Ayers at Defensive End and Brent Grimes at safety.
Defence will continue to be an issue throughout the season for the Bucs and Winston will need to carry his team over the line if they are to get anywhere near a winning season.
Prediction: 6-10 again. Sorry Bucs fans. Can't see much else.