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Wednesday, 16 January, 2019

Verdicts on Atlanta, Carolina, New Orleans and Tampa Bay

Saints should march into the playoffs

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan
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Atlanta Falcons

2017 10-6 Coach Dan Quinn
QB Matt Ryan RB Devonta Freeman
Major Ins G Brandon Fusco, DT Garrison Smith
Major Outs DT Dontari Poe, TE Levine Toilolo
Top draft picks WR Calvin Ridley (first round), CB Isaiah Oliver (second round)

The Falcons have been a force for the last two seasons and will be confident of making their presence felt again.

The fact that last season's ten-win campaign was a disappointment shows how dominant they were in 2016 before their collapse in the Super Bowl.

The running game is excellent with a two-pronged attack of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and receiver Calvin Ridley is expected to make a big impression in his rookie season.

They are a strong blocking outfit and their defence should ensure that, once again, they are more than competitive in a fierce division.

Carolina Panthers

2017 10-6 Coach Ron Rivera
QB Cam Newton RB Christian McCaffrey
Major Ins DT Dontari Poe, WR Torrey Smith
Major Outs G Andrew Norwell, DT Star Lotulelei
Top draft picks WR DJ Moore (1), CB Donte Jackson (2)

The Panthers will again be looking to quarterback Cam Newton to inspire them to glory and he will have some new receiving options with Torrey Smith having joined Devin Funchess and prolific tight end Greg Olsen. 

CJ Anderson rushed for more than 1,000 yards for Denver last year and Christian McCaffrey is a real livewire.

The defence remains strong, but Newton needs to be able to steady the ship when things do not go to plan.

The NFC South looks likely to be settled by small margins and Newton needs to ensure he is fully in control when the finishing line is in sight.

New Orleans Saints

2017 11-5 Coach Sean Payton
QB Drew Brees RB Alvin Kamara
Major Ins CB Patrick Robinson, LB Demario Davis
Major Outs G Senio Kelemete, S Kenny Vaccaro
Top draft picks DE Marcus Davenport (1), WR Tre'Quan Smith (3)

Some excellent drafting put the Saints right up there last season and Drew Brees remains a top quarterback.

They have good running options even though Mark Ingram is suspended for their first four matches while Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn are excellent receivers.

All of them are supported by a sound offensive line but there have also been fine upgrades in defence over the last couple of years - they were among the best in terms of sacks and interceptions last season.

The young squad on that side of the ball should only get better and the Saints could march all the way to the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2017 5-11 Coach Dirk Koetter
QB Jameis Winston RB Ronald Jones
Major Ins DE Jason Pierre-Paul, C Ryan Jensen
Major Outs RB Doug Martin, DT Clinton McDonald
Top draft picks DT Vita Vea (1), RB R Jones (2)

The Buccaneers have their work cut out as the weakest team in arguably the NFL's strongest division, especially as they will be without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston for their first three matches.

Winston struggled at times last year anyway. Receiver Mike Evans is a top talent and there are high hopes for rusher Ronald Jones after the departure of Doug Martin, but the good news is limited.

The defence, now boosted by the addition of former Giants Jason Pierre-Paul, was the worst in the league last year and needs to improve straight away.

In the face of such strong divisional competition, Tampa Bay are really up against it.

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The Buccaneers have their work cut out as the weakest team in arguably the NFL's strongest division
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