What you need to know about the NFC South


Can Cam Newton and the Panthers win the division? (Mike McCarn / AP)

The arrival of Lovie Smith in the NFC South is intriguing, but it probably isn’t going to do anything to upset the balance of power in the division this season.

The New Orleans Saints, a wild card team in the postseason, gave the Seattle Seahawks a fight in the playoffs in January before falling short in Seattle. They addressed some of their needs in the offseason, but the biggest perhaps is avoiding having to go on the road. The Atlanta Falcons are better — they’d almost have to be — but the division’s biggest question mark surrounds the Carolina Panthers, who won the NFC South last season. Ted Ginn and Steve Smith are gone and the Panthers will go as far as Cam Newton takes them.

Atlanta

Top story line – There’s no Tony Gonzalez and even with him last season the Falcons couldn’t avert disaster, falling to a last-place tie in the division with Tampa Bay.

Key acquisition – Jake Matthews, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft out of Texas A&M, is expected to start at right tackle.

Biggest loss – Technically, linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is still on the team, but he was lost for the season when he tore his Achilles’ in June.

Carolina

Top story line – Can a team that went to the playoffs replace all the talent that it couldn’t re-sign?

Key acquisition – Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who caught 56 passes for 602 yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh last year, steps in to replace Steve Smith.

Biggest loss – Steve Smith wasn’t just a loss, he’s promised to wreak “Taken”-like vengeance on the Panthers when his new team, the Baltimore Ravens, faces Carolina. Get yer popcorn.

New Orleans

Top story line – After winning 11 games but falling short against the Seahawks, the Saints were prepared to improve their offensive line (giving Drew Brees more time is always a good idea) and their defense. Now if they can figure out how to win on the road …

Key acquisition – Safety Jairus Byrd signed on to replace Malcolm Jenkins. Now all the Saints have to do is continue to manage his recovery from back surgery so that he’ll be on the field for the season opener.

Biggest loss – Darren Sproles heads to a team he has intimidated in the past, the Eagles.

Tampa Bay

Top story line – Hello, Lovie. Stress was the name of the game under former coach Greg Schiano, who was replaced by Lovie Smith. Already, the stability is evident.

Key acquisition – Defensive end (this IS Lovie Smith) Michael Johnson left Cincinnati for Tampa Bay and a five-year, $43.5 million deal.

Biggest loss – Darrelle Revis. If he’s healthy, Revis Island is a lockdown defender … for New England.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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