By Brian Willwerth
1.) Atlanta Falcons [13-3] – A lot of people still have a hard time believing this team went [14-2] last season and ended up with the best record in the NFC. That’s probably because the eventual Super Bowl champs walked into the Georgia Dome and blew them out of the playoffs. But this is a very talented team led by quarterback Matt Ryanand running back Michael Turner. They addressed their defense in the offseason with the signing of Ray Edwards.
2.) New Orleans Saints [11-5] – When you think of the Saints, probably the first name that comes to mind is quarterback Drew Brees. He has been sensational since coming to New Orleans, and that will likely continue in 2011. Reggie Bush is gone. Mark Ingram is now in the backfield. But the defense must improve if the Saints are to advance far in the playoffs. New Orleans still has a sour taste in its mouth, after losing to Seattle in the Wild Card round last year.
3.) Tampa Bay Buccaneers [9-7] – The Bucs were one of the best surprise stories of 2010, turning in a 10-win season and just missing the playoffs. For the first time in forever, it is the offense leading the team instead of the defense. Quarterback Josh Freeman had an outstanding first full season as the starter while wide receiver Mike Williams made an instant impact out of Syracuse. But the big question on this team is the defense. The Bucs really struggled to get any sort of a pass rush going. They hope their first-round pick, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, will help fix that.
4.) Carolina Panthers [4-12] – Let the Cam Newton era begin in Carolina. The Panthers made him the first pick in the draft, and he will start immediately in Week 1. It’s difficult to expect anything more than 3 or 4 wins from a team starting a rookie quarterback, but we shall see.