Teams in predicted order of finish

1. ATLANTA FALCONS: Star-studded Falcons offense will soar again

  • How they did in 2012: 13-3 (3-3 vs. South); in playoffs, beat Seahawks 30-28 in Divisional round, lost to 49ers 28-24 in NFC Championship.
  • 2012 top performer: QB Matt Ryan (Pro Bowl, 4,719 yards, 32 TDs, 14 INTs)
  • Key losses: OT Tyson Clabo, CB Brent Grimes
  • Key additions: RB Steven Jackson, CB Desmond Trufant
  • Why we picked them here: Matt Ryan has arrived as a top-level quarterback, and it’s no surprise that WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez (3,479 receiving yards and 25 TDs between them) are a big reason why. But the biggest factor for the Falcons offense is the acquisition of former Ram Steven Jackson in the offseason. He has rushed for 1,000 yards eight straight seasons. He’s 30, but for the first time in his career he will play with a guy like Ryan. He’s a huge, huge upgrade over former big back Michael Turner – and Turner was very successful for the Falcons. If healthy, Jackson will make this team a true Super Bowl contender.

2. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Brees could use a little help from the D

  • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (3-3 vs. South); missed playoffs.
  • 2012 top performer: QB Drew Brees (Pro Bowl, 5,177 yards, 43 TDs, 19 INTs)
  • Key losses: RB Chris Ivory, DT Sedrick Ellis
  • Key additions: S Kenny Vaccaro, CB Chris Carr
  • Why we picked them here: If we know anything, it’s that the Saints are going to throw the ball. A lot. Drew Brees has absolutely amazing numbers in his seven years in New Orleans (33,571 passing yards, 67.1 completion percentage, 244 touchdowns and just 112 intercepted passes), and he’s not looking like a guy who’s over the hill. Like the Tom Bradys and Peyton Mannings of the world, he will make any WR look better than he is. That’s why they’ll compete for the playoffs this year and until he retires. Super Bowls, however, are out of the question until they fix the defense, which allowed 440.1 yards per game last year, almost 60 more than the next-worst team.

3. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Talent level rising, but not there yet

  • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (3-3 vs. South); missed playoffs
  • 2012 top performer: RB Doug Martin (Pro Bowl as a rookie, 1,454 yards rushing, 12 total TDs)
  • Key losses: OT Jeremy Trueblood, DE Michael Bennett
  • Key additions: CB Darrelle Revis, S Dashon Goldson
  • Why we picked them here: With big-time players at DT, RB and WR, you’d think that the Bucs would be a bit more consistent than they have been the last three years. They went 10-6 in 2010, followed that with a 4-12 debacle in 2011 and bounced back a little to 7-9 in 2012. Gerald McCoy (2012 Pro Bowler) has become a top-shelf defensive tackle, fiery RB Doug Martin took the NFL by storm last year (1,454 rushing yards, 12 total TDs and a Pro Bowl selection), and free agent acquisition WR Vincent Jackson proved he can still blow the top off a defense (1,384 yards, 8 TDs). As with many inconsistent teams, you have to look to the QB. Josh Freeman topped 4,000 yards for the first time and threw 27 TDs to just 17 interceptions – but his completion percentage dipped to 54.8 percent and he threw nine interceptions his last three games. It’s hard to imagine he becomes an elite QB in his fifth season as a starter – but he’ll have to if the Bucs want to press the Saints and Falcons.

4. CAROLINA PANTHERS: Big men on defensive line, behind center need help from faster, smaller guys

  • How they did in 2012: 7-9 (3-3 vs. South); missed playoffs.
  • 2012 top performer: WR Steve Smith (73 catches, 1,174 yards)
  • Key losses: CB Chris Gamble, LB James Anderson
  • Key additions: DT Star Lotulelei, KR Ted Ginn
  • Why we picked them here: Quarterback Cam Newton, at 6-5, 245 pounds, continues to be a threat with his arm (3,869 yards, 19 TDs in 2012) and on the ground (741 yards, 8 TDs). And the Panthers’ defensive line is huge with 6-2, 285-pound star DE Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks), 6-4, 290-pound DE Greg Hardy (11 sacks) and 6-3, 305-pound tackle Dwan Edwards before they drafted Utah’s Star Lotulelei, a 6-2, 315-pounder. They’ll rush the QB, and they have a QB who can run and throw – so where’s the problem? Only diminutive 5-8 WR Smith, who’s in his 13th season, is a proven offensive weapon. The Panthers have talent, but have yet to make it all mesh. They might push 8-8 this season, but that’s the ceiling until they find some playmakers for Newton.


  • Why we like him: Yep, it’s another big guy from Carolina. The 6-5, 250-pounder has finally established rapport with Newton, and he finished 2012 with four of his five TDs in the last seven games. He could break 1,000 and 10 this season.