The road to making the playoffs starts inside your division. Balance reigned supreme in the NFC South last year, the only division where all four teams finished 3-3. Additionally, three teams finished with identical overall records as well.
So after going 13-3 last year, the Falcons are the clear front-runner. Still their Achilles heel last year was their own division, where all 3 of their losses occured. And they were just a combined 3 points away from being swept by the Panthers and Bucs as well. The 2013 Falcons will be trying to prove that they can be a dominating team within the divison as well.
We know where they got better, but let's talk about weaknesses: The Falcons couldn't stop the run nor rush the passer last year, finishing 29th in yards given up per rushing attempt and 28th in team sacks. Interestingly, they improved neither of these areas in the off-season. Osi Umenyiora could actually be considered a step down from John Abramham. Production-wise in 2012, Osi had four less sacks than John, four fewer forced fumbles, and six fewer passes defended. And not upgrading that front 7 against the run could really come back to haunt them against Carolina and Tampa. Additionally, two starters were lost off an Atlanta O-line that already struggled to protect Matt Ryan against the Carolina D-line...and the current plan is to depend on their back-ups to fill the void...
They will be able to score at will, but again their ability to remain ahead falls on their defense. Stumbling to an 0-4 start killed their season, and 3 consecutive double-digit losses late in the year finished them off. Sean Payton returning should help them start much better, but many questions similiar to Atlanta's remain surrounding that defense. The Saints had the worst run defense in the entire league last year, and they finished tied for 25th in team sacks. It's debatable if John Jenkins has the bite to make a significant impact against the run, and they did nothing to address their inability to get to the QB. On offense there is open competition for the important but vacant LT job, and many are wondering if Mark Ingram can provide the offensive balance the Saints imagined when trading up for him.
The Bucs are the conundrum, as they were extemely streaky last year. After defeating the Panthers in the opener, they lost 3 in a row. Then won 4 in a row. Then lost 5 in a row. They ended the season losing 5 of their last 6, including a 41-0 molly-whomping at the hands of the Saints. And this was when they had a shot to make the playoffs. (Maybe Schiano isn't the motivator he's made out to be?)
This team certainly has the stars sprinkled in at various positions. But most believe the team will only go as far as Freeman does. The Bucs will seek to win via a stiffling defense, and a power run attack mixed with opportune deep balls on offense. Their running style will likely give Atlanta and New Orleans fits, but Carolina should be in a better position this year with the help of their new Star. Additionally, while investing premium draft picks and free agent money into their last place secondary, the Bucs actually lost their most productive pass rusher on a D-line that already finished 29th in sacks.
Summary: So as a whole everyone else invested one or two high draft picks into their secondary, and ignored their poor pass rush and/or run defense. As it has been noted extensively before now, Carolina is the lone wolf that did the exact opposite.
The home team has proven that they match up well with their division mates. Two of their three divisional losses occured via a big play given up late in the game. And as ugly as the Bucs opener was to start the season, the Panthers had a golden opportunity to score a go-ahead TD during the 4th quarter.
Only 3 teams in the NFC scored fewer points than the Panthers did last season (Eagles, Rams, and Cardinals). More offensive consistency will go a long way. I expect a big step up from Cam in year 3, a time when things generally start clicking for players. With no major offensive personnel additions, the Panthers will hope that more balanced play-calling combined with a more seasoned Cam will yield the desired offensive results.
With the defensive improvements, the Panthers won't exclusively depend on extraordinary play from Cam to win games. Monster's Inc. will be looking to terrorize the offensive lines of the Saints and Falcons, lines that struggled against them last year and are actually worse off this year. And who can't wait to see Clark Kent in year two? With so many flukey losses over the last 2 years, the new Carolina D could be the difference maker. Despite starting cold, the close losses and final four game win streak show the Panthers are a team that could easily get hot. And if they do, that could lead to some long awaited January football in Carolina.
Bottom line: The division is obtainable