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NFC South Preview
The New Orleans Saints lost their opening game last season to the Green Bay Packers but then went on to grab the No. 2 seed in the NFC behind them by going 13-3 overall, including an eight-game winning streak to end the regular season. Saints quarterback Drew Brees led the way by throwing for an NFL-record 5,476 passing yards to go along with a career-high 46 touchdowns. Unfortunately for Brees and his teammates, they finished the year with a heartbreaking 36-32 loss to the surprising San Francisco 49ers and made the wrong kind of headlines during the offseason with the shocking news of Bountygate.
The toughest challenge for New Orleans heading into this season will be trying to overcome some of the stiffest suspensions in NFL history that were handed out by league commissioner Roger Goodell as a penalty for former defensive coordinator Greg Williams issuing rewards to his players for hurting the opposition. Head coach Sean Payton and standout linebacker Jonathon Vilma are suspended for the entire season while GM Mickey Loomis will miss the first eight games of the regular season and assistant coach Joe Vitt the first six. Goodell also fined the Saints $500,000 and took away two second-round draft picks, one each in 2012 and 2013. Despite those challenges, the Saints sit as the NFC South favorites at +130 to win the division, 17/2 to win the NFC Championship and 18/1 to win Super Bowl XLVII.
The Atlanta Falcons figure to pose the biggest threat to New Orleans coming off a 10-6 campaign that was viewed as a disappointment following an NFC-best 13-3 mark in 2010. The Falcons got great production from two of their best offensive players, running back Michael Turner (1,340 rushing yards) and wide receiver Roddy White (1,296 receiving), but had to settle for a Wild Card as the No. 5 seed heading into the playoffs. Some questionable coaching and a lack of clutch play sent the team to New York for a meeting with the Giants, who won their playoff opener 24-2 en route to claiming the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Atlanta will be looking to rebound in 2012 as the +140 second choice to win the division in addition to being 12/1 to win the NFC Championship Game and 18/1 to win the Super Bowl.
The Carolina Panthers went 6-10 last season and finished third in the NFC South, but not without rookie sensation and former Heisman Trophy-winning QB Cam Newton captivating the league and posting record-breaking numbers in the process. Newton single-handedly carried the Panthers offense at times and kept them in games, exceeding expectations for last year's overall No. 1 pick in the NFL draft by throwing for more than 4,000 yards and rushing for 14 touchdowns, a league record for a QB. He also quickly developed very good chemistry with veteran WR Steve Smith, who recorded 1,394 receiving yards. Newton will need to cut down on turnovers and make better decisions in his second year, but the Panthers are definitely a team to watch at +450 to win the division, 18/1 to win the NFC Championship and 35/1 to win the Super Bowl.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers surprisingly started 3-1 last season, but then quickly faltered, losing 11 of their last 12 games to finish at 4-12. Tampa Bay QB Josh Freeman had a very disappointing season, throwing 22 interceptions compared to 16 touchdowns. However, Freeman will have some offensive help this year with the arrival of Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson to a large multi-year deal. The Bucs will also be starting this season on a fresh slate after head coach Raheem Morris was fired and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was brought in as his replacement. Regardless, Tampa is still very much in a growth and rebuilding stage under Schiano at +1000 to win the division, 35/1 to win the NFC Championship and 75/1 to win the Super Bowl.
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