NFL 2011

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Ben Roethlisberger

An improved running game should help take the load off of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. (Getty Images)

1. New Orleans Saints

Win 11 games and make the playoffs despite major injuries and lack of depth? That was last year's Saints. This season should be much improved with many of those key holes filled with healthy players.

Drew Brees threw for 4,620 yards and 33 touchdowns last season and should cut down on his 22 interceptions, thanks to an improved running game that will take up more of the offensive load. The drafting of running back Mark Ingram and the signing of Darren Sproles should more than replace the loss of Reggie Bush.

They also add reliable center Olin Kreutz to the offensive line and tackle Shaun Rogers to a defense that already features much of the same strong starting backfield as it did last year. Healthy and deeper, the Saints should be among the league's best.

2. Atlanta Falcons

Last season, the Falcons earned top seed and the best record in the NFC with consistent play through a tough schedule, beating five playoff teams. Their offense, though statistically near the middle of the pack, remains multi-dimensional, with quarterback Matt Ryan, running back Michael Turner, tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White.

Hoping to address their weakness at long pass plays, the Falcons traded away five draft picks to select rookie speedster receiver Julio Jones early in the first round. The offense will be very difficult to stop, especially at home in the Georgia Dome.

The defense will need to improve after it struggled in its early exit to the Packers. Defensive end John Abraham gains from the addition of pass-rusher Ray Edwards, who came over from the Minnesota Vikings. The NFC South is now tougher with the up-and-coming Tampa Bay Buccaneers and healthy New Orleans Saints, but the Falcons' talent will carry them.

3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers realized they have a budding star in quarterback Josh Freeman (3,451 yards and 25 touchdowns) and surrounded him with talent: wide receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, in addition to running back LeGarrette Blount and tight end Kellen Winslow.

Once known for their punishing defense, these Buccaneers are younger. The team added talent to its defensive line the past two drafts, including defensive tackle Gerard McCoy and lineman Adrian Clayborn, the team's top pick this April.

Last season, the inexperienced Buccaneers surprised many with their strong play, finishing 10-6 and narrowly missing the playoffs. The key to improving and making the postseason this year will be a more consistent defense and the continued development of Freeman. If that happens, Tampa Bay will contend for a division crown.

4. Carolina Panthers

After finishing with the league's worst record last season, the Panthers earned the top pick in the draft and selected quarterback Cam Newton. Because of the NFL lockout, Newton didn't learn or develop under the eye of the team's new coaching staff, including new Coach Ron Rivera, and this will hurt some. But if he does wind up starting, which seems possible, Newton's physical ability will show.

If Newton beats out Jimmy Clausen for the starting job, he will have help in proven returning starters such as wide receiver Steve Smith, running back DeAngelo Williams and newly acquired tight end Greg Olsen.

The defense was solid last season and, thanks to the strength of the linebackers, likely will be the same, if not better, under Rivera, who ran the No. 1-ranked Chargers defense last season.There should be improvement overall, but don't expect either Newton or Clausen to lead them to the playoffs just yet.

By James Wagner - The Washington Post. Published Aug. 31, 2011.