Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) drops back to pass during the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Divisional Previews: The NFC South

As we rapidly approach the start of the 2014 preseason, it’s time to assemble divisional previews for each of the eight that exist. We’ll look at last year, then call attention to the key losses and additions by team, and then give an outlook for 2014. We start with the ever familiar NFC South, and go from the best team to worst team in 2013.

2013 Combined Record: 31-33
2013 Playoff Teams: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints

Carolina Panthers

2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC South Divisional Champs)
Splits: Home (7-1), Road (5-3), Conference (9-3)

How their season ended: After earning a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs and despite boasting a 7-1 home record, the Panthers would fall short to the San Francisco 49ers 23-10 in the Divisional round.

Key Offseason Losses: OTJordan Gross (Retired), G Travelle Wharton, WR Brandon Lafell, WR Steve Smith, WR/KR Ted Ginn, WR Domenik Hixon, CB Captain Munnerlynn, S Quentin Mikell, S Michael Mitchell

Important Newcomers: S Roman Harper, S Thomas DeCoud, CB Antoine Cason, WR Jericho Cotchery, WR Tiquan Underwood, WR Jason Avant, TE Ed Dickson, QB Joe Webb, WR Kelvin Benjamin (Draft), DE Kony Ealy (Draft), G Trai Turner (Draft)

2014 Outlook: Well, to be the best, you have to beat the best, right? Not when your front office lets your team become completely decimated. The Panthers lost a ton of veteran players in the offseason, and we’re not talking role players, but good starters. Their largest question mark remains as to who will catch balls from Cam Newton. Although their receivers are seasoned, it still can pose issues with chemistry for Newton. I’d say their defense could carry them to a point, but they lost Munnerlynn, Mitchell, and Mikell in the secondary only to replace them with older veterans. The Panthers are in for a long season, and could sport a very palindrome like season.

New Orleans Saints

2013 Record: 11-5 (NFC Wild Card)
Splits: Home (8-0), Road (3-5), Conference (9-3)

How their season ended: After exercising ‘road demons’ in Philadelphia in the Wild Card round, the Saints would travel to set up a date with destiny with the Seattle Seahawks. The team struggled early, but would battle back to make things interesting in the last two minutes. The Saints would recover an onside kick, but would be done in by an illegal forward pass by wide receiver Marques Colston, losing 23-15.

Key Offseason Losses: LB Jonathan Vilma, LB Will Herring, S Malcolm Jenkins, RB Darren Sproles (Trade), DE Will Smith, WR Lance Moore, FB Jed Collins, C Brian de la Puente, T Charles Brown, DT Tom Johnson, CB Jabari Greer

Important Newcomers: S Jairus Byrd, FB Erik Lorig, CB Champ Bailey, S Marcus Ball, C Jonathan Goodwin, WR Brandin Cooks (Draft), CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Draft)

2014 Outlook: Bias aside, the Saints are in the mix for the top three favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis aren’t letting this affect the team, as per media pressers. On paper, I firmly believe that this is the best New Orleans Saints team that has ever existed. The team has even more offensive weapons to gel with their fourth ranked defense from a season ago. Things look great in the Crescent City, but they will be battle tested right out of the gate, having four of their first six games on the road. This team should easily make the playoffs, and look to secure a first round bye.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2013 Record: 4-12
Splits: Home (3-5), Road (1-7), Conference (2-10)

How their season ended: As well as it started – Terrible. This franchise was subject to so much turmoil early on. It all started with the MRSA outbreak in training camp, then there was the Josh Freeman controversy, running back Doug Martin going down for the season, and then the ‘call for blood’ in firing coach Greg Schiano after an 0-8 start. The Bucs would put together three-straight wins afterwards, but ended the year on a three-game losing streak. Things were just plain ugly in Tampa.

Key Offseason Losses: FB Erik Lorig, WR Mike Williams, CB Darrelle Revis, C Jeremy Zuttah, QB Dan Orlovsky, T Donald Penn

Important Newcomers: QB Josh McCown, TE Brandon Myers, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, CB Alterraun Verner, CB Mike Jenkins, DE Michael Johnson, DT Clinton McDonald, T Anthony Collins, S Major Wright, WR Mike Evans (Draft), TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Draft)

2014 Outlook: Coach Lovie Smith will make all of the difference in the world with this squad. I know many think I’m absolutely insane for what I’m about to say, but I believe the Bucs will be the second best team in the NFC South this season. I know this stems a ton from the quarterback play of Josh McCown, but remember that Lovie Smith won in Chicago with Rex Grossman. Smith commands discipline for his team, and while they may be power ranked at the bottom of the totem pole, I don’t buy it.

Atlanta Falcons

2013 Record: 4-12
Splits: Home (3-5), Road (1-7), Conference (3-9)

How their season ended: Disappointing Tony Gonzalez. A year removed from being the top seed in the NFC at 13-3 was regarded as a potential fluke, as the Falcons finished 4-12. It was their worst record since 2007. The Falcons four wins came against the Rams, Bucs, Bills, and Redskins (all sub .500 teams). Tony Gonzalez never got his chance to even remotely taste a Super Bowl, and automatically joins the list of the greatest players to never win a Super Bowl. The Falcons had issues everywhere. Their offensive line couldn’t block, putting Matt Ryan on his back more than a few times. Steven Jackson was a complete bust at running the football, and a Julio Jones injury plagued the team.

Key Offseason Losses: RB Jason Snelling, LB Akeem Dent, TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Stephen Nicholas, S Thomas Decoud, CB Asante Samuel, G Garrett Reynolds

Important Newcomers: TE Bear Pascoe, G Jon Asamoah, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, NT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, CB Javier Arenas, G Gabe Carimi, KR Devin Hester, S Dwight Lowery, T Jake Matthews (Draft), DE/DT Ra’Shede Hageman (Draft), RB Devonta Freeman (Draft)

2014 Outlook: We’re not exactly sure what we’re going to get out of the Falcons this year. They did address a few things during the offseason, but just don’t seem to ‘wow’ anyone at this point. When the news hit that the team lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for the season, it further rose a cause for concern. What does this team look like without Tony Gonzalez? They’re going to implement a ‘tight end by committee’ going forward, and the running game doesn’t call for Steven Jackson in the equation. Also, how is their defense going to hold up? There’s just too many questions that aren’t being answered until the team plays.

NFC South Bold Predictions

  • The New Orleans Saints will win the division
  • The Bucs will finish out the second best team in the NFC South
  • The Bucs, Panthers, and Falcons will finish with sub .500 records
  • Mike Smith will be fired after this season

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