A Closer Look: NFC South

New Orleans Saints: 9-7
Drew Brees is the Rashad Evans of NFL QBs - he sure gets a lot out of what he has, now doesn't he? Then again, maybe you would too if you had the array of receiving talent he has at ready; RB corps will sport smaller look this year with Deuce McAllister gone, but OL has allowed average of just 17 sacks per season last 3 years (13 in '08) and all starters return. Diogenes-like search for answers on defense continues, most recently bringing in two new presumptive secondary starters in CB Jabari Greer and well-traveled S Darren Sharper. Every last-place team in this division's history has gone on to make playoffs the following season, all but one (Atl last year) as division champs; and getting to play Det and StL while rivals must face much tougher pairs could come in handy in contentious grouping; the pick.

Carolina Panthers: 7-9
Seemed to have lost their will after Week 16 OT loss to NYG deprived them of top NFC playoff seed, barely squeaking by already-eliminated NO to save 2 seed, then getting inexplicably blown out at home by Ari after first-round bye; QB Jake Delhomme turned it over 6 times that day, but was subsequently re-signed to long-term deal and RB duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart bring to mind Byner-Mack from mid-'80s Browns; receivers are getting neither younger nor healthier though. Managed to hold onto DE Julius Peppers, LB Jon Beason comes off Pro Bowl season, and '08 2nd-rounder Richard Marshall succeeds Ken Lucas at other CB spot besides respected Chris Gamble. But schedule contains nary a single game vs. a team that finished worse than 7-9 a season ago - ouch! - and no defending NFC South winner has ever gone better than 9-7 the year after, or made playoffs; plus they are one of two teams in this division (Atl being the other) that has NEVER had back-to-back winning seasons in franchise history! Doubters have loads of ammo.

Atlanta Falcons: 7-9
Matt Ryan made the team - and the city - forget about Michael Vick in a big way, perpetuating rags-to-riches tradition of this division; RB Turner did everything that could possibly be asked of him in first year out of LT's shadow in SD, and veteran TE Tony Gonzalez has been added to receiving mix which already included dangerous WR Roddy White. Were not idle on defensive side either, drafting DT Peria Jerry in Round 1 and salvaging LB Mike Peterson from sinking Jac ship in FA, but may have issues in secondary with Domonique Foxworth taking the money and running to Bal; worse yet, three other vets on defense - DT Grady Jackson, LB Keith Brooking and S Lawyer Milloy - also flew coop. Sked looms another obstacle, up meteoric .129 from '08; no lock to break vexing no-two-winning-seasons-in-a-row jinx, let alone reprise playoff run.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 4-12
Crashed and burned after 9-3 start, although 9-7 final record was best ever by defending NFCS champ; fade cost both the HC, Jon Gruden, and the starting QB, Jeff Garcia, their jobs, with Raheem Morris taking over at the former spot and heaven-knows-who the latter; Derrick Ward was signed at RB in FA in case Cadillac Williams and/or Earnest Graham can't rebound from recent injuries, while WR Joey Galloway was also off-season casualty. New DC Jim Bates is shaking things up on that side of ball, making storied Cover-2 a thing of the past - but does he have the talent to make any scheme work, especially with Cantonite-in-waiting Derrick Brooks no longer on hand? Dreaded "youth movement" has landed here, and short-term results of recent examples of same (like KC in '08) haven't been encouraging; pass.