NFC South preview: Saints go marching on

Despite all the penalties incurred on the Saints this off-season, the should still do just fine on...

Despite all the penalties incurred on the Saints this off-season, the should still do just fine on the field. (DOMINICK REUTER/Reuters file photo)

JOHN KRYK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:00 PM ET

Don't go feeling sorry for the New Orleans Saints. They're gonna be just fine, thanks.

Even though commissioner Roger Goodell hammered the club with suspensions over the pay-to-injure 'bounty' scandal, the Saints should be no less formidable in 2012.

That's even with head coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma banned for the season, general manager Mickey Loomis out for the first eight games, and interim head coach Joe Vitt gone for the first six.

The club and the entire state of Louisiana are livid with the harsh penalties, and the team wisely is using it all as motivation.

The Atlanta Falcons are no slouches, though. They've averaged nearly 11 wins per season the past four years under GM Thomas Dimitroff (who grew up in Ontario) and head coach Mike Smith. But they're 0-3 in the playoffs.

The Carolina Panthers exploded back into relevance behind last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Cam Newton, but probably still are a year away from serious playoff contention.

Tampa Bay has hit the reset button after handing the keys to over-achieving college coach Greg Schiano.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

LAST SEASON: 13-3, division champ

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: That spectacular offence. There's no reason to believe QB Drew Brees and the high-powered Saints won't continue to carve up NFL defences in '12, after doing so in '11 at the dizzying pace of 467 total yards and 26 first downs per game, both tops in the NFL ... Jimmy Graham might be best TE in the NFL and Darren Sproles might be league's shiftiest RB in space, and they're Brees' favourite targets ... New co-ordinator Steve Spagnuolo's less aggressive, zone-heavy defence should cut down on killer big plays allowed.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Spagnuolo's defence is so drastically different from bounty-perp Gregg Williams' that he might not have the proper players to run it effectively. So the NFL's 24th overall defence might get worse before it gets better ... Suspension distractions might prove too emotionally draining, and insurmountable.

SNARKY QUESTION: With fewer 'incentives,' can Saints defenders be as motivated as in past years? (Now that's snarky.)

PREDICTION: 13-3. Wouldn't be surprised if they're even better than that. The offence is that potent.

LAST SEASON: 10-6, playoff wildcard

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Good if not great QB Matt Ryan has two superstars to throw to, in WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter was brought in to better utilize that duo, and other receivers, by adding sophistication to heretofore playground pass patterns ... Similarly, new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan introduced more complicated pass coverages, especially in sub-packages.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The OL is average, and some say limits how far the offence -- and the team -- can go ... Several key players are deep into their 30s. The time to win is now, ready or not ... Usually it takes a year for a team to master drastic new schemes, and the Falcons have such on both sides of the ball ... Can Akeem Dent be as effective an MLB as departed Curtis Lofton?

SNARKY QUESTION: Will the offence finally be able to pick up one lousy yard when it really needs it?

PREDICTION: 10-6. The team that can't quite get over the hump still won't.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

LAST SEASON: 6-10, no playoffs

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: QB Cam Newton, one of the most dazzling rookies at any position in NFL history, did all that last year without an off-season program ... The talent-short defence adds ravenous tackling machine LB Luke Kuechly, now just about everybody's favourite to be rookie defender of the year.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: The defence. Was bad across the board last year (25th vs. the run, 24th vs. the pass, 27th vs. the score). Worst aspect? The D-line. Bad against the run, and had a non-existent pass rush ... Newton has few, if any, legit receiving options after WR Steve Smith and TE Greg Olsen ... RB Jonathan Stewart ended the pre-season with a right ankle injury, and he and RB DeAngelo Williams are critical to Panthers' success. Newton's play feeds off the run threat.

SNARKY QUESTION: How can Newton possibly repeat, let alone top, his 35 TDs of last year (21 passing, 14 running)?

PREDICTION: 8-8. Hard to get excited about playoffs when team's success rides so much on just one player.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

LAST SEASON: 4-12, no playoffs

REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Team has talent but desperately needed a kick in the pants. Schiano provides it ... Schiano seems to have chosen Bill Belichick to be his NFL mentor/adviser ... Club spent a fortune ($72M+ guaranteed) in free agency to fill needs and begin acquisition of proper puzzle parts for Schiano -- eg, OG Carl Nicks and WR Vincent Jackson.

REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Schiano's experience is mostly at the college level ... Schiano wants to win with defence and a running game, but Bucs last year were 30th in total defence and 30th in rushing offence. Long way to go ... Team was sloppiest in the NFL in '11, with a minus-16 net turnover differential ... QB Josh Freeman tossed six more picks than TDs (22-16).

SNARKY QUESTION: Will Schiano suffer the same disastrous fate as failed ex-college coaches Lou Holtz, Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino, et al?

PREDICTION: 5-11. They'll improve, but Schiano needs time with his tough, old-school approach.


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