Today's question: Who will win the NFC South, and how many teams from the division will make the playoffs?
Vaughn McClure, Atlanta Falcons: The Panthers became the first team in NFC South history to win consecutive division titles as they finished with a 7-8-1 overall record and 4-2 mark in the division. One would think this year's winner has to finish above .500, and the Falcons might have a legitimate chance to compete. They have what is, on paper, the NFL's easiest schedule in 2015. The Falcons also could benefit from having their final two division games, against the Panthers and Saints, at home to close the season. The Falcons should have a dynamic offense with Matt Ryan at quarterback, Julio Jones at receiver, the backfield trio of Devonta Freeman, Tevin Coleman and Antone Smith, and the addition of pass-catching tight end Jacob Tamme. If coach Dan Quinn can get the defense playing at a respectable level, the Falcons should legitimately compete for the division title, probably with the Saints providing the stiffest competition. The 2011 season was the last time two NFC South teams, the Falcons and Saints, reached the postseason. Those same two teams could be back in the playoffs this coming season.
David Newton, Carolina Panthers: Can you say "three-peat"? The Panthers won the division with a 7-8-1 record last season for the same reasons they did in 2013, when they were 12-4: defense and a strong running game. Carolina finished with a top-10 defense for the third straight year. Atlanta was 32nd, New Orleans 31st and Tampa Bay 25th. I can't see any of them improving to a top-10 level, and I can't see Carolina falling out of the top 10. The Panthers ranked seventh in rushing last season. There's no reason for a drop-off there, with four of the five linemen who finished the season back. As for the playoffs, two division teams would be a stretch. Atlanta has the best opportunity with new coach Quinn, who is committed to the same winning formula as Carolina. But with transition, there often are growing pains. The worst division in the NFL in 2014 will be the worst again.
Mike Triplett, New Orleans Saints: I'll give the slight edge to the Saints over the Falcons and Panthers, in that order. I think all three are capable of 10-win seasons, but I can't possibly predict more than one team to make the playoffs after the inconsistency we witnessed last year. I'm going with the Saints because I still think they have the best quarterback, the best offense and the highest overall ceiling. The offense won't be quite as dynamic after the team traded away Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills. But Sean Payton and Drew Brees still have plenty of toys to play with, led by dynamic receiver Brandin Cooks and running backs Mark Ingram and C.J. Spiller. The big question mark is the defense, which plummeted to 31st in the NFL last year. But the Saints have too much talent to be that bad. The secondary should be vastly improved with a healthy Jairus Byrd and the addition of Brandon Browner, and that should have a ripple effect on the pass rush. I could write almost the exact same thing about the Falcons. They, too, have a dynamic offense and could be dangerous if new coach Quinn is able to turn the defense around.
Pat Yasinskas, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Saints will win the division, and the Panthers will join them in the playoffs as a wild card. Payton and Brees are too good to stay down for long. If coordinator Rob Ryan can make the defense respectable again, the Saints could be one of the best teams in the league. Defense is Carolina's strong point, and that will be enough to get the Panthers to the playoffs for a third consecutive year.