The bounty scandal did not cripple the Saints. But it did weaken them, and that will shift the balance of power in this increasingly competitive division.
The Falcons and Panthers did little more this offseason than stack their chips, but that is all they had to do to gain ground on the depleted Saints. The Falcons were already two tough yards from the NFC Championship Game, so a tweaked offensive scheme and a low-cost addition to the secondary could be all they need to finally catapult past one-and-done playoff status. The sky is the limit for Cam Newton and the Panthers' offense, at least once their defense and special teams pull themselves off the floor. As basement dwellers go, a Buccaneers team that won 10 games two seasons ago and had a productive offseason must be considered among the most dangerous.
Of course, the Saints cannot be written off now that Drew Brees is back in the huddle after an offseason of contract squabbles. It doesn't take a Sean Payton to coach a Brees-led team to greatness. All it takes is a … say, who is the Saints interim coach these days, anyway?
Tweet Preview: The best team to not win a playoff game in four years sees a window of opportunity, and Mike Smith says, "Go for it!"
Biggest Change from 2011: Asante Samuel hits with the force of a Pillow Pet, but he can still cover most wide receivers. He joins Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes in a secondary that was crippled by injuries late in 2011 but could be the best in the NFC this year.
Overblown Story: Mike Smith's fourth-and-one "gambles" in the playoffs weren't really gambles at all. Trying to convert on fourth-and-short in opponent territory is almost always the mathematically correct call, which is why great coaches like Bill Belichick do it so often. Smith and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter want to come up with something more creative than the quarterback sneak to gain that one tough yard, but that is a different matter.
Undersold Story: Koetter had the thankless job of building an offense out of Maurice Jones-Drew and bailing twine in Jacksonville. Koetter now has NFL talent to work with. His wrinkles, including a no-huddle offense and more creative use of the running backs in the passing game, will make the Falcons a lot less predictable.
Telling Stat: The Falcons executed just nine running-back screens last season, averaging just 3.7 yards per screen. Koetter's Jaguars executed 33 screens, gaining 5.7 yards per screen even though the entire defense expected MJD to get the ball on every play. The Falcons have a fine, underused screen-pass candidate at running back. His name is …
Breakout Player: Jacquizz Rodgers broke 19 tackles in just 78 offensive touches last year. Koetter likes running backs who can catch, so Rodgers should earn an increased role as Michael Turner's change-up.
Bottom Line: With the Saints in disarray, the Panthers still rebuilding and the Buccaneers unable to charge their iPads without controversy, the Falcons have a clear path to the NFC South title. But then, getting to the playoffs has never been their problem. Better depth and better offensive diversity should get them deeper into the postseason. Better luck would also help. PREDICTION: 11-5.
New Orleans Saints
Tweet-sized Preview: "Laissez les bons temps rouler." Translation: Let these coaching temps be good!
Biggest Change from 2011: Sean Payton is suspended for the year. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo replaces Gregg Williams, who was fired before he was suspended. Interim head coach Joe Vitt must serve his own suspension, and the Saints didn't settle officially on double-deluxe-interim coach Aaron Kromer until mid August. All of the changes won't be as meaningful on the field as they are in the legal journals: Spagnuolo's defense is more of a traditional 4-3 than Williams' funky scheme, but the offense still has more weapons than the Death Star.
Overblown Story: Jonathan Vilma's complicated appeal of his one-year bounty suspension may have serious long-term repercussions when it comes to the NFL's discipline process and the ultimate rights of the commissioner. But the appeal has little to do with the 2012 Saints: They signed Curtis Lofton to replace Vilma and are fully prepared to go on with life without the aging linebacker. Lofton suffered a minor ankle sprain in the preseason but will be at full speed for the season opener.
Undersold Story: General manager Mickey Loomis is also suspended for the first eight games of the regular season. In-season personnel management is the least sexy part of a GM's job, but it is crucial to the overall quality of the roster. As soon as the Saints have to dip into the waiver pool to cover for an injury, they will miss Loomis' services.
Telling Stat: Brees' completion rate over the last three seasons (more than 1,800 passes) is 69.9 percent. The 70-percent-completion threshold used to be attainable only during strike-shortened seasons or by all-time greats having career years. Brees can hang around it for years at a time.
Breakout Player: Martez Wilson, defensive end. Wilson is a 250-pound beast who has been clocked in the 4.4-second range in the 40-yard dash. He had trouble sliding from college middle linebacker to NFL pass rusher in Williams' complex defense last year. This season, he will be used as a traditional edge rusher, and Spagnuolo is an expert at turning raw talents like Wilson into sack specialists. Also, keep an eye on defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, a high-effort player who had a great camp.
Bottom Line: With Payton at the helm, the Saints would be among the Super Bowl favorites. Without him and other key decision-makers, the Saints will lack the creative leadership that turns great teams into special ones. But they will still be good. PREDICTION: 9-7.
Tweet-sized Preview: Jon Beason and the defensive outpatients must help Cam Newton turn thrilling 49-35 defeats into thrilling 35-21 victories.
Biggest Change from 2011: The defensive injury list is no longer just a photocopy of the depth chart. Beason, Thomas Davis and Ron Edwards all participated in camp, though Beason was still getting the packing-peanut treatment late in camp. Ron Rivera is so excited about the prospect of seven healthy players on his front seven that he and coordinator Sean McDermott added some 3-4 wrinkles to the team's 4-3 defense. On offense, fullback Mike Tolbert makes the Panthers even less predictable in short yardage and gives coordinator Rob Chudzinski more mix-and-match options.
Overblown Story: Defensive end Thomas Keiser eats chia seeds. So what? There are lots of chia recipes on the Internet. Chia pudding. Chia pancakes. Chia seeds are this generation's wheat germ. And if grass grows out of your skull, just cut it short and dye it brown. Also, people who are seriously worrying about a Cam Newton sophomore slump need something else to worry about. It's not like he made the "Madden" video game cover or anything serious like that.
Undersold Story: The special teams were just as bad as the defense last season, and the Panthers made several moves to upgrade the kicking game. Rookie Brad Nortman and CFL veteran Justin Medlock replaced shaky veterans Jason Baker and Olindo Mare at punter and kicker. Free-agent acquisition Haruki Nakamura leads a totally rebuilt coverage unit. Rookie return man Joe Adams will replace Armanti Edwards, who averaged just 5.5 yards per punt return in 2011. A yard here and a point there can go a long way for a team that allowed 27 points per game last year.
Telling Stat: Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart took 93 handoffs from shotgun formations, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. The threat of a Cam Newton keeper opened up some gaping holes for two very good running backs.
Breakout Player: Brandon LaFell, wide receiver. LaFell has run hot and cold in two seasons, but he played well after replacing Legedu Naanee (now in Miami) in the starting lineup. LaFell will get all the opportunities Naanee got last year, plus some of the passes thrown to now-departed Jeremy Shockey.
Bottom Line: The Panthers have playoff-caliber talent but are stuck in a division with two heavyweights. If the Saints stumble, the Panthers could take their place as the team with the high-wire offense and not quite enough pieces on defense. PREDICTION: 8-8.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tweet-sized Preview: Greg Schiano has changed the team culture. So if you are a rookie reading this on your team-provided iPad, get back to work!
Biggest Change from 2011: Schiano assembled a ragtag coaching staff full of colorful personalities with dubious résumés: It's like the A-Team, but with fewer explosions and more midseason dismissals. The team's free-agent and draft hauls were more encouraging than their coaching hires. Vincent Jackson provides a veteran weapon for a young offense, while rookie Mark Barron gives the team an enforcer at safety who will bring back happy John Lynch memories for Bucs fans.
Overblown Story: LeGarrette Blount's big mouth and malfunctioning alarm clock. In a development that surprised no one but Blount, Doug Martin won the starting job at running back. Blount bristled at the idea of sharing the load before the draft and may not win a good citizenship award on the bench. But Schiano has already displayed a short fuse with malcontents, and Blount could be made an example of at the first sign of trouble.
Undersold Story: The Bucs' run defense started the 2011 season pretty solid but became a glorified E-ZPass lane soon after DT Gerald McCoy got hurt. McCoy suffered a minor injury against the Patriots, but he is expected to bounce back, and the front seven has many other talented building blocks. The Bucs can become respectable in a hurry if they stop allowing 194 rushing yards per game -- the figure they gave up in their final six games of last year.
Telling Stat: Opponents broke 106 tackles against the Bucs' defense, the highest total in the NFL. Barron and fellow rookie Lavonte David, both fundamentally sound tacklers, will help restore order, as will McCoy.
Breakout Player: Martin has everything you could ask for in a running back except size and breakaway speed. He is incredibly determined, catches and blocks well, finds holes, uses leverage to dart through tackles, and is the kind of young man you'd let borrow your car. Martin can do most of the things Blount could do and all of the things he cannot.
Bottom Line: Schiano inherits a young core that went 10-6 just two seasons ago and arrives just as the Glazer family has decided to start investing a few pounds and shillings in their American operation again. A quick return to .500 is possible, though Schaino's staff may experience more growing pains than his roster. PREDICTION: 7-9.
All stats provided by Football Outsiders.