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Way-Too-Early NFC South Chances

Here’s a look at the NFC South in 2012, along with each team’s chances of winning the division. The Saints will definitely be improved, but the Falcons and physical Panthers will be difficult to dismiss, as Matt Ryan takes advantage of his first off-season with OC Dirk Koetter and QB’s coach Glenn Thomas, and Cam Newton looks to top his rookie season.

1. Saints (2011 finish: 13-3, 1st). There are some free agents for the Saints, but this team will be better next year for three reasons: Jimmy Graham has taken a full season of starting reps, Sean Payton has had a year of figuring out how to use Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham, and because they have added one of the best defensive coordinators in Steve SpagnuoloChances of winning the division: 55%

2. Falcons (2011 finish: 10-6). Matt Ryan’s head-scratching, off-target spearheading of a scoreless Falcons offense in the playoffs was either an anomaly, or a sign that it really is unique what the Saints have done with an average-armed, fairly immobile quarterback. Matt Ryan is even less mobile. I do think Julio Jones will continue to get better. The Falcons have the weapons, but they need to get more sacks than the 33 they accumulated in 2011. They are at a disadvantage, having traded away their 1st and 4th round picks. Chances of winning the division: 22%

3. Panthers (2011 finish: 6-10, 3rd). Cam Newton’s rookie season was unprecedented, pouring in 35 TDs with just 17 INTs. Peyton Manning had 26 TDs with 28 INTs his first season. The Panthers are so promising on offense, with so many weapons, that it should make things easy for Ron Rivera to focus on improving the defense, which was 27th in points allowed with 429. They allowed 150+ rushing yards 6 times, were 32nd in net yards per attempt, and had only 31 sacks. They will get LB’s Thomas Davis (played 2 games) and Jon Beason (played 1 game) back from injury. Chances of winning the division: 20%

4. Buccaneers (2011 finish: 4-12, 4th). When you take into account that the Buccaneers had 6 of the 10 worst defensive performances in points allowed in the division but that their offense turned the ball over 3 or more times in 5 of those 6 games, it tells you that the defense was very bad, but not horrific. Just by being more disciplined with the football, the Buccaneers’ gloriously atrocious 494 points would have gone down significantly. Tampa Bay turned the ball over just 19 times in 2010, but 40 times in 2011 despite having only four new players who had zero fumbles or interceptions. Chances of winning the division: 3%

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