First of an eight-part series
Overview: Atlanta returned to the postseason and looked poised for a deep playoff run after winning one of the league's more competitive divisions and clinching the No. 1 seed in the NFC. The Falcons were bounced after a first-round bye, however, losing 48-21 to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Packers.
Team MVP: The Falcons' passing game lacked a consistent deep threat but was highly productive, and QB Matt Ryan, a third-year veteran, made few critical mistakes. He had the most attempts of his pro career and threw a career-low nine interceptions. Only playoff success separates Ryan, who had 28 touchdown passes, from the league's elite group of quarterbacks.
Biggest surprise: CB Brent Grimes was considered to be a potential weak link on defense heading into the season, but he showed great improvement and was added to the Pro Bowl roster to replace Charles Woodson. Grimes was targeted frequently as quarterbacks tried to avoid throwing toward teammate Dunta Robinson, but Grimes was ready for the challenge. He batted down an impressive 23 passes.
Biggest disappointment: Getting blown out in the playoffs killed the buzz in Atlanta. It was a major disappointment for a team that felt like it was ready to take a big step. Also, the Falcons were hoping for more out of their last two first-round draft picks — DT Peria Jerry came along slowly as he returned from an '09 leg injury, and OLB Sean Weatherspoon missed five games because of various injuries.
Offseason outlook: GM Thomas Dimitroff is not looking to blow up the roster. A core player or two could depart in free agency, but the Falcons like the team they have built and will be looking to fill in the gaps to help them make a run at another NFC South title.
Overview: Carolina fielded one of the league's younger teams and finished with a 2-14 record, securing the top pick in the draft. Injuries and inexperience at quarterback — rookie Jimmy Clausen started 10 games — doomed the Panthers. As expected, owner Jerry Richardson decided to part ways with head coach John Fox after nine seasons.
Team MVP: It was an awful year for the Panthers, and DE Charles Johnson was one of the few bright spots. He's not as talented as the player he replaced, Julius Peppers, but Johnson had a Pro Bowl-caliber year and was often Carolina's lone source of pressure on quarterbacks. He made 11.5 sacks, which tied for seventh-most in the league.
Biggest surprise: The plan was to bring Clausen along slowly and perhaps give him a chance to start around the middle of the season, but Fox flipped the script. He pulled the plug on QB Matt Moore, who had suffered a concussion in Week One, before the end of Week Two and gave Clausen the starting job, only to bench Clausen a few weeks later and return Moore to the top spot on the depth chart. Moore landed on injured reserve after Week Nine, and Fox had to turn to Clausen again.
Biggest disappointment: The Panthers were clearly rebuilding in the offseason, but they had enough talent to be a more competitive team. Fox didn't do a good job, and the front office didn't help him much when it dumped veterans and steered clear of free agents.
Offseason outlook: Richardson hired Ron Rivera, a successful defensive coordinator in stops with the Chargers and Bears, to replace Fox. The first priority for Rivera and GM Marty Hurney is finding help at quarterback, but they have other needs to address and could go in a few different directions with the first overall pick.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Overview: Injuries hit the Saints hard at running back and in the secondary at times, but they overcame those issues in the regular season and clinched a spot in the playoffs. Their defense of the Super Bowl title ended abruptly, however, when they were upset by the Seahawks 41-36 in the wild-card round.
Team MVP: He was sloppier than usual, throwing a career-high 22 interceptions, but QB Drew Brees still led the league in completion percentage (68.1) and had 33 touchdown passes, which tied for the second-most in the NFL. He's one of the league's top quarterbacks and the leader of the team.
Biggest surprise: The quick playoff exit was stunning, but we'll save that for the next category. It would have been hard to convince league observers before the season that undrafted rookie RB Chris Ivory would finish with more yards rushing than RBs Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush combined, but that's exactly what happened. Ivory stepped up while both players were injured.
Biggest disappointment: A great two-year run for the Saints came to a screeching halt at Qwest Field in Seattle, as they lost to the Seahawks, who were 10-point underdogs after winning the NFC West with a 7-9 record. It crushed the Saints and their fans. Seattle's win could go down as one of the bigger upsets in playoff history.
Offseason outlook: They could have as many as 28 unrestricted free agents, depending on the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and there will be much more roster turnover than there was between 2009 and '10. The Saints are also working on a contract extension for Brees, who is due to become a free agent after next season.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Overview: The Buccaneers made significant strides in 2010, going from 3-13 in 2009 to 10-6. With a young head coach and roster — it became the first team since the 1970 merger to start 10 rookies and finish with a winning record — Tampa Bay took advantage of a manageable schedule. The Bucs were in contention for the playoffs until the last week of the season.
Team MVP: After a rough rookie season, QB Josh Freeman showed vast improvement. He threw 25 touchdown passes, was intercepted only six times and provided firm leadership. He helped lead the Bucs to five wins in which they came from behind in the fourth quarter. Only five quarterbacks had a higher passer rating than Freeman's 95.9.
Biggest surprise: The Buccaneers lost eight regular starters to injured reserve — and another, FS Tanard Jackson, was suspended indefinitely before Week Three — and all that hardship didn't derail their season. As backups stepped into starting roles, the injuries exposed quality depth in certain areas, which observers didn't expect to see from the Bucs.
Biggest disappointments: An overtime loss to the Lions at home in Week 15 set the team back in its playoff quest. Jackson's second failed drug test in as many seasons, which resulted in an indefinite suspension that will last at least through the second week of next season, was another bitter blow for the franchise.
Offseason outlook: Tampa Bay is loaded with young talent, but there are some positions that need to be addressed, including defensive end. GM Mark Dominik will be looking for pass-rush help, and the Bucs also have to make decisions on two key defenders in MLB Barrett Ruud, who has led club in tackles in each of the past four seasons, and CB Ronde Barber. They are both due to become unrestricted free agents.
Saturday: AFC East team reports