NFC South: Things to consider

08/24/2012 08:19 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT
The third of an eight-part series on the league's divisions, featuring a look at NFL team's roster changes, 2011 statistics, and 2012 schedule occurrences to consider.

Everyone knows that this is a league where things can change drastically in a hurry for some teams — for nine straight years at least one team has gone from worst to first in their division.

If that trend holds true in the NFC South, the winner is ... the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That's a proposition that will pay out about 15 to 1.

The prospect of New Orleans repeating as division winners would buck history to begin with (sidebar), even without the maelstrom of controversy surrounding the team this offseason.

The NFC South squads face teams from the AFC West and the NFC East.

Statistics below refer to 2011 regular season games unless otherwise noted.End of season trend includes playoff games. Close games refer to games decided by seven or less points.

Atlanta Falcons

- Average wins, past 5 years: 9.4

- 2011 record: 10-6

- Record in close games: 4-3

- Avg. loss margin: 11.8 points

- Avg. win margin: 12.3 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 11

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 8

- End of season trend: 5-3

Good vibes: Strange schedule but they should be disappointed if they're less than 4-2, if not 5-1 to start … Do not face a club with a 2011 winning record until Week 10 against New Orleans (although it should be pointed out they face five separate 8-8 teams, so it's not all cream puffery) … Julio Jones came on strongly in last six games and forms great receiving combo with Roddy White … Team seems committed, wisely, to reducing running back Michael Turner's workload … When you combine offence and defence stats, were one of NFL's best red zone teams.

Caution signs: New offensive coordinator, new defensive coordinator, new offensive line coach … Play the Giants and Lions six days apart late in the season … Pass defence has not ranked better than 20th in last four seasons … Gave up 93 points in last three games in 2011 … Have a terrific record in close games since 2008, which analysis sites like Football Outsiders would say has a way of eventually working back towards .500 soon enough.

Who knows: How much do key offensive players like Turner and Tony Gonzalez have in the tank? A real litmus test whether the core group of players is championship calibre as the most major changes have been to Mike Smith's coaching staff, not on the field.

Carolina Panthers

- Average wins, past 5 years: 7

- 2011 record: 6-10

- Record in close games: 1-5

- Avg. loss margin: 11.6 points

- Avg. win margin: 15.5 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 12

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 6

- End of season trend: 4-2

Good vibes: Remember that Cam Newton did what he did last season without benefit of a full offseason … Newton, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams each went over 700 yards rushing, first team ever to have three do that … Team had a ridiculous total of 90 plays over 20 or more yards … Don't figure to be decimated on defence with injuries to the extent they were last season … Tight end Greg Olsen can catch more than 45 if needed.

Caution signs: Gave up a ton of passing yards and were poor defensively in red zone … There's no guarantee injured defensive players like Jon Beason and Thomas Davis can regain their form … Star receiver Steve Smith is 33 and dealing with a preseason foot infection … Next leading receiver after Smith had pedestrian 44 catches …Schedule not constructed very nicely: After a winnable opener against Tampa Bay, they must play Giants and Saints within a five-day span … Early bye week as well, with 11 consecutive weeks of action to follow.

Who knows: Will they learn how to win close games? Will teams get a bead on the Panthers backfield (including Newton) this time around, and relatedly, can they find a downfield weapon other than Smith? Imperative that Newton not follow the Michael Vick route of running into danger, as Derek Anderson or Jimmy Clausen are the backups.

New Orleans Saints

- Average wins, past 5 years: 10.4

- 2011 record: 13-3

- Record in close games: 4-1

- Avg. loss margin: 8 points

- Avg. win margin: 17.8 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 16

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 8

- End of season trend: 9-1

Good vibes: Just an otherworldly offence: Over 20 points in every game, over 30 on 10 occasions, over 40 six times … Drew Brees set a new NFL passing yards mark and completed 71 per cent of his passes … Darren Sproles set an NFL all-purpose yards mark … Relatedly, the offensive line reverted to Super Bowl season form, adapting to all types of play calls while allowing fewest sacks …Teams could not stop their version of the tight end beast, Jimmy Graham … Multiple options at receiver and running back … Added a terrific defensive player in Curtis Lofton from Atlanta and drafted promising DT Akiem Hicks from the Regina Rams … Hired Steve Spagnuolo, who earned raves last time he was an NFL defensive coordinator … Amid all the turmoil, their first three games come vs. teams who won a total of 18 games in 2011.

Caution signs: You may have heard … Lose their fiery, innovative head coach Sean Payton and will play for two interim coaches as a result of Bountygate … Lose the services of one of their best defensive players for the season (Jonathan Vilma), and another one (Will Smith) for several games … Defence doesn't make a lot of big plays … Depth could be hurt by not having first or second round picks this past April (a result of the 2011 trade for running back Mark Ingram) … Log a lot of travel miles and go in opposite directions on consecutive weeks in October (Tampa Bay, then Denver) … It will be great entertainment for football fans, but games against Green Bay and San Francisco will further test their mettle. Play the 49ers and Falcons four days apart in late November.

Who knows: It's not like Brees is going to be anything less than really good, but he just signed a boffo contract and seems to have a bit of an angry chip over the team's treatment in the media in the wake of Bountygate. Will he be affected by either? … Really though, it's mostly about whether the defence can even approach passable levels (see New England last year) in order to get back to the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

- Average wins, past 5 years: 7

- 2011 record: 4-12

- Record in close games: 4-3

- Avg. loss margin: 18.9 points

- Avg. win margin: 5 points

- Games with 20 or more points scored: 8

- Games with 20 or less allowed: 4

- End of season trend: 0-10

Good vibes: Can't possibly get worse after one of the most pathetic quit jobs of recent NFL times … New coach Greg Schiano known for instilling discipline …QB Josh Freeman has talent and has been given more weapons to work with, such as Vincent Jackson, Dallas Clark, Jordan Shipley and valued rookie back, Doug Martin … Those players could help take pressure off talented Mike Williams, who maintained the 65 catches of his rookie year but rarely found the end zone … Plucked Carl Nicks from the terrific Saints offensive line … Drafted safety Mark Barron from Alabama's championship team and signed cornerback Eric Wright, who picked off four passes for Detroit last year … Because of their woeful record, they've drawn the non-imposing duo of Minnesota and Washington as their leftover games.

Caution signs: Each of the three levels of defence a work in progress … Gave up 30 TD passes, second worst in the NFC … Gave up 30 or more points a league worst eight times, and gave up 40-plus on four occasions … Freeman turned the ball over a whopping 27 times last year … Per usual, because of their location, Bucs travel more than their division counterparts … Rank among the youngest teams in the NFL.

Who knows: Freeman is clearly the fourth best QB in the division after last season but it's not like the book has closed on him … Gerald McCoy, a terrific personality, has pronounced himself fit after not being able to live up to his promise the past two seasons. Bucs fans know very well he was taken just one spot after fellow defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh of Detroit.