In order of predicted finish.
1. New Orleans Saints (7-9, tied for second in 2007)
The Saints came out of the gate 0-4 in '07, and though they went 7-5 after that, plenty good enough to be a playoff team in the weak NFC, the hole was too deep.
In '08, for the second time in four years, the Saints open the season in the aftermath of a hurricane having passed through their hometown, though fortunately Gustav didn't wreak nearly the devastation that Katrina did. The Saints will play their first game at home in the Superdome Sunday.
Jonathan Vilma has been brought in to anchor the middle of what had been a weak defense. Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, both injured for much of last year, are back to form a power-speed duo in the backfield, though McAllister might have passed his sell-by date. Jeremy Shockey has arrived to present a big target for Drew Brees, who has played well in practice games, for what that's worth, which is the same as what tickets to those games are worth.
The Saints are almost certainly better than the 7-9 disappointment of a year ago, and they might be better than the 10-6 post-Katrina miracle team of coach Sean Payton's first year. Even if not, they should be good enough to win this division.
2. Tampa Bay BuccaneersThe once-vaunted Tampa Bay defense is still pretty good, but it's getting older and older, and won't be able to carry the Bucs back to the playoffs.
Jeff Garcia, who's also getting older and older, led them there last year, but it's going to be a much tougher task without Cadillac Williams. He's out for at least the first six weeks as he tries to make his way back from a catastrophic knee injury. The Buccaneers look like they're going to be one of those teams that's a tough out. They'll be in every game, and if things bounce their way, they could find themselves in the wild-card race. Sort of like the ...
3. Carolina Panthers (7-9, tied for second in 2007)
A lot is riding on quarterback Jake Delhomme, who's coming back from Tommy John surgery. You didn't know Tommy John played football, did you? It won't help that for the first two games he'll be without his favorite target, and the only good target he's had over the years, the suspended Steve Smith. The Panthers offense hasn't often been pretty, but it's been downright hideous whenever Smith has been absent. The Panthers, who have become a perennial bubble team, can't afford to give away games.
On defense a lot is riding on Julius Peppers rebounding from a bizarrely awful season, especially with linemate Kris Jenkins gone in a trade.
The Panthers look like fringe contenders again, but they're not deep. If anything goes wrong it could be a long year, probably the last for former Super Bowl coach John Fox.
4. Atlanta Falcons (4-12, fourth place in 2007)
The Falcons have a new brain trust and they're starting from scratch after the twin Michael Vick-Bobby Petrino fiascoes.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff came from the New England Patriots and is a Scott Pioli disciple. Head coach Mike Smith was the defensive coordinator in Jacksonville. So that should give you an idea of the plan.
Winning four games last year was something of an achievement. Matching it would be another.
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