In these past few years, the NFC South has finally seen some stability. When realignment first created the division in 2002, a different team was winning it just about every year. Bottom-feeders could rise to the top in just one season (see the New Orleans Saints in 2006, or the Atlanta Falcons in 2008).
It was the division where parity reigned supreme, and team could be dominant in any given year.
Then, in 2009, that all changed. The Carolina Panthers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers fell to the bottom half, while the battle for supremacy in the South essentially became a two-team battle between the Saints and Falcons. The Saints took the division in 2009 and 2011, while the Falcons grabbed it in 2010 and 2012.
Meanwhile, neither the Buccaneers nor the Panthers have made the playoffs since 2008.
This year, however, the lower-class teams of the NFC South look to be on the rise. Cam Newton is entering his third year in the league, and this might finally be the year he puts it all together and leads the Panthers to a playoff berth.
Meanwhile, the Buccaneers made a huge score when they traded for Darrelle Revis, who is widely considered to be the best cornerback in the league, and one of the few defensive players who can fundamentally change a franchise by himself. If Revis plays as well as he did for the New York Jets, and Josh Freeman finally lives up to his potential, the Bucs could make a serious run this season.
So, the NFC South is up for grabs. At least one team in this division is going to miss the playoffs, but its quite possible that all of them could be competitive. The Falcons will almost certainly be the favorites. They had an excellent run last year, and Matt Ryan was finally able to win a playoff game.
Additionally, Tony Gonzalez is retiring (or so he claims), and the desire to get him a Super Bowl ring in his final season will provide motivation for a Falcons team that probably didn’t need it.
The Saints figure to be a scary team, too. Bountygate is over, and Sean Payton is back in charge, which means that the Saints will likely be at the top of their game again. They still have one of the best quarterbacks in the game in Drew Brees, and the odds of their defense being as bad as it was last year are extremely slim.
So, the Saints and Falcons will likely be solid once again, but now they have the entire division to spar with instead of just each other. Going into the season, this is the toughest division to predict.
The safe pick here is the Falcons. They were excellent last season, and nearly all of the impact players from that team will be back for 2013.
Still, no one here can be ruled out. The NFC South will be an extremely competitive division this season, and while it’s hard to say who will come out on top, we do know for sure that it’ll be extremely fun to watch how it all plays out.