1. Atlanta Falcons
2011 RECORD: 10–6
On paper, the Falcons look fantastic. They have the NFL's best receiving duo in Roddy White (100 receptions, 1,296 yards) and Julio Jones (959 yards, eight TDs), a QB who can air it out in Matt Ryan (4,177 yards, 29 TDs), and a dynamite RB in Michael Turner (1,340 yards). But the offense sputtered in the playoffs last season, scoring zero points against the Giants in the first round. Defensively, leading tackler LB Curtis Lofton signed with the division rival Saints, and the Falcons must fix a secondary that allowed opponents to convert on 44 percent of third-down attempts last season. With promising young LB Sean Weatherspoon (115 tackles) returning and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan joining the organization, Atlanta's defense should be much improved.
BOTTOM LINE: The Falcons will have no problem making the playoffs. How far they go will depend on how well the offense can move the ball when the season is on the line
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2. New Orleans Saints
2011 RECORD: 13–3
The Saints had a rough offseason because of the bounty scandal. Among punishments to numerous players and coaches, head coach Sean Payton and LB Jonathan Vilma were suspended for the season. New Orleans will depend on an offense that was first in the NFL in yards per game (467.1). QB Drew Brees set the NFL single-season passing yards record (5,476 yards) last season and has an elite pass catcher in TE Jimmy Graham (1,310 yards, 11 TDs), a former college basketball player who is dominant in the red zone.
BOTTOM LINE: Despite the losses on the coaching staff and defense, Brees will keep the Saints in the division title hunt.
3. Carolina Panthers
2011 RECORD: 6–10
The Panthers are ready to rock after QB Cam Newton's stellar rookie season. The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year passed for 4,051 yards, rushed for 706 yards, and accounted for 35 touchdowns. In his second pro season, expect Newton to connect more frequently with WRs Steve Smith (1,394 yards) and Brandon LaFell (613 yards). The Panthers ranked near the bottom of the NFL in almost all defensive categories in 2011. Carolina needs rookie LB Luke Kuechly to help LB James Anderson (145 tackles) contain offenses.
BOTTOM LINE: Newton will continue to shine, but a weak defense will keep the Panthers out of the playoffs.
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4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 RECORD: 4–12
The Bucs couldn't find the end zone enough in 2011, reaching 20 points in a game only six times and ending 2011 on a 10-game losing streak. QB Josh Freeman (16 TDs, 22 INTs) must improve. Newly acquired WR Vincent Jackson (1,106 yards with the Chargers) and TE Dallas Clark (352 with the Colts) join WR Mike Williams (771 yards) to give Freeman a strong group of targets. The Bucs defense gave up the most points in the NFL last year (30.9 per game). Rookie S Mark Barron will improve the secondary, but Tampa finished last in the NFL with 23 sacks.
BOTTOM LINE: The Buccaneers have a lot of holes, so the playoffs are a longshot.