While an NFC South team has won or advanced to the Super Bowl in three of the past eight seasons, success has been fleeting for the division's four clubs.
Since the league expanded to an eight-division format in 2002, every division but the NFC South has had at least one team finish on top in consecutive seasons. Every division but the NFC South and AFC North has had one team win its title for at least three seasons in a row during that span.
In the quick-to-shift NFC South, no one stays on top or at the bottom for long, and that revolving door may not stop spinning in 2010.
With the Buccaneers still in rebuilding mode and the Panthers weakened by the departure of DE Julius Peppers, it would appear the Falcons are the only legitimate threat to dethrone the Saints, although Carolina has surprised before and shouldn't be completely disregarded. Atlanta is clearly New Orleans' most likely challenger.
The final tally from voters in this year's PFW/Yahoo! Sports Preview 2010 magazine had the Falcons narrowly edging the Saints for an NFC South title, even though New Orleans has won seven of its last eight meetings with Atlanta.
It's not hard to imagine Atlanta winning it, and potentially going deep into the playoffs, but are we shortchanging the defending champions a bit? Are the musical chairs of the NFC South's past infecting our prognostications heading into the 2010 campaign?
There's no question the Falcons, a young team on the rise, have improved this offseason. They filled one of their biggest holes by signing the best cornerback available in free agency, Dunta Robinson. GM Thomas Dimitroff's first pick in this year's draft, OLB Sean Weatherspoon, was targeted in part because he provided the speed necessary to keep up with and disrupt a slew of New Orleans' quick skill-position players. Having a healthy Michael Turner back will also help, and Matt Ryan should only get better in Year Three.
Consider that the Falcons nearly upset the Saints in Week 14 last season, before losing by three, and that was with Chris Redman at quarterback and no Turner, who was out nursing an ankle sprain.
There are still doubts about the Falcons' pass rush — the squad ranked 27th in sack percentage last season — but the team, on paper, looks better than it did last year.
The Saints, who were limited in free agency by the uncapped year's "final eight" rule, haven't made any marquee additions to their roster. Of course, they haven't lost anyone who's irreplaceable, either.
The most notable departing players — RB Mike Bell, SLB Scott Fujita and DE Charles Grant — each played important roles at various times during the 2009 campaign, but the Saints won the Super Bowl without Grant ever suiting up for a playoff game. Fujita's leadership will be missed, but there are young players who can be just as productive as he was. Lynell Hamilton could do just fine as the third back behind Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush.
The main concern about the Saints is whether the defense, which ranked 25th last season, can make up for some of its flaws by being as opportunistic as it was in '09.
That's where doubt about New Orleans' chances of repeating atop the NFC South begins to creep in.
It's hard to see FS Darren Sharper, who is coming off microfracture surgery, making nine interceptions again. The 34-year-old's recovery could keep him sidelined into training camp. It's probably a safe bet that the Saints won't force 39 turnovers — second-most in the league in '09 — again. There are only a few teams with the potential to get takeaways at that rate consistently, and I don't think the Saints are one of them.
The Saints' offense has the firepower to keep up with any team, but their run defense, which gave up nearly 140 yards per game in the final 11 regular-season contests and 5.2 yards per carry in the playoffs, is a glaring problem that hasn't been sufficiently addressed this offseason. The Saints will not win the division if that run defense is as porous as it was for most of last season.
May is not the time for writing obituaries for any team. Saints fans have plenty to be optimistic about, and the franchise kept the core of a title-winning club in place.
But when it comes to stopping that NFC South revolving door from spinning a new team to the front of the line, look out. The Falcons may be up to the task of keeping the streak alive.
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