1. Atlanta Falcons
2012 record: 13–3
Last season QB Matt Ryan and the Falcons finally experienced postseason success, reaching the NFC Championship Game. Ryan (4,719 passing yards, 32 TDs) is coming off his best season and has a tremendous trio of receivers in Roddy White (1,351 receiving yards), Julio Jones (10 TDs), and Tony Gonzalez (93 receptions). The ground game was upgraded with the addition of Steven Jackson (1,042 rushing yards with St. Louis), who replaces the inconsistent Michael Turner. The defense lost veterans Dunta Robinson and John Abraham and lacks a big-time hitter other than LB Sean Weatherspoon (95 tackles). New DE Osi Umenyiora (six sacks with the Giants) should help scare opposing QBs, but the 31-year-old is past his prime.
BOTTOM LINE: The Falcons' offense will score at will. If the defense holds up, Atlanta will be Super Bowl bound.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2012 record: 7–9
How does a team improve a pass defense that gave up nearly 300 yards per game? By making a blockbuster trade with the New York Jets for the NFL's premier cornerback, Darrelle Revis. Revis will complement a run defense that was Number 1 in the league last season and an offense that set a franchise record with 5,820 yards of total offense and 389 points scored. QB Josh Freeman (4,065 passing yards, 27 TDs) and RB Doug Martin (1,454 rushing yards) are two of the NFL's brightest young stars, and WR Vincent Jackson (1,384 receiving yards) is a big-time playmaker.
BOTTOM LINE: In the strong NFC South, the Bucs are a team to watch as a wild-card contender.
3. New Orleans Saints
2012 record: 7–9
Things seem back to normal in the Big Easy. Coach Sean Payton returns after being suspended for the entire 2012 season for a bounty scandal. His first order of business is shaping up the defense, which last year allowed the most yards in NFL history (7,042). Signing CB Keenan Lewis from Pittsburgh and drafting athletic safety Kenny Vaccaro will help. The Saints face the second-toughest schedule in the NFL, but at least the offense is in good hands with QB Drew Brees (5,177 passing yards, 43 TDs). Expect a huge season from Jimmy Graham, the talented tight end who struggled with injuries last year.
BOTTOM LINE: New Orleans will continue its high-scoring ways. If the D improves, the Saints will fight for second place.
4. Carolina PANTHERS
2012 record: 7–9
The Panthers salvaged their 2012 season by winning their last four games. To build on that success, QB Cam Newton (3,869 passing yards, 741 rushing yards) must limit his turnovers, and the running back duo of DeAngelo Williams (737 rushing yards) and Jonathan Stewart (336) need to fulfill their potential. NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year LB Luke Kuechly (165 tackles) and DEs Charles Johnson (12½ sacks) and Greg Hardy (11) headline a promising young defense. Rookie DT Star Lotulelei, the 14th pick of the NFL draft, has the ability to be an elite run-stopper.
BOTTOM LINE: Newton and the offense have been carrying the load the past two seasons. It's time for the defense to step up.
DID YOU KNOW?
Talk about bad luck: Last season the Panthers lost the coin toss in each of their first 13 games. The chance of that happening was 1 in 8,192!
PHOTOS: JOHN DAVID MERCER/USA TODAY SPORTS (FALCONS), HEINZ KLUETMEIER/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (BUCCANEERS), AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SAINTS), CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (PANTHERS)
ILLUSTRATION: ANDREW ROBERTS