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NFC South preview: Panthers face stiffer competition in repeat bid

The 2014 NFC South may well have been the worst division in NFL history. Will anyone catch the Panthers as the division looks to regress to the mean?

The 2014 NFC South may well have been the worst division in NFL history. The 7-8-1 Panthers became the second team to win its division with a losing record, following the 7–9 Seahawks in 2010. But there were no Beastquake playoff moments for these Panthers: they beat the banged-up Cardinals in the wild-card round and were then summarily dispatched by the Seahawks in the divisional round.

The Saints followed an underwhelming 7–9 season with an off-season in which player after player was jettisoned as the franchise tried to avoid salary cap purgatory. The Falcons finished 6–10 and fired coach Mike Smith after a total of 10 wins in the last two seasons—in Smith's previous five years in Atlanta, the Falcons had averaged more than 10 wins per season. And the Buccaneers finished 2–14 after a free-agency spending spree that had them looking for refunds all year. The best asset they came away with was the No. 1 pick in the draft.

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In the new year for the NFC South, change abounds. Atlanta replaced Smith with former Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and brought offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan on board to try to jump-start an offense that had gone past boring to downright ineffective over the last two seasons. The Saints assessed the lack of depth throughout their lineup and traded Jimmy Graham for an extra first-round pick and a starting center. The Buccaneers drafted Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who will define his new team for better or worse over the next few seasons. The Panthers largely stood pat, but nobody in that front office was happy about winning a division by default.

“We took a step back after 2013, because we had to,” head coach Ron Rivera said at the end of the season. "The one thing [general manager] Dave [Gettleman] and I talked about was 2014 was going to be hard. He was very blunt and very up-front about what he had to do, and I appreciated that. I didn’t expect it to be as crazy as it was, and nobody expected the things that happened to happen. It set us up to be in a good position.

“Even though we did take a step back initially, we went ahead and took a step and a half [forward]. We took another step in the playoffs. We won a playoff game and got into the divisional round. Now we’ve got to take another step. And hopefully it’s a big step.”

Every team in this division is looking to take a big step, and someone undoubtedly will. That's the good news. The bad news? The bar was set rather low before.

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Favorite: Panthers

Even with second-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin lost for the season with a torn ACL, the Panthers are the most stacked team in this division. Greg Olsen may be the most underrated tight end in the NFL, and second-round pick Devin Funchess has potential as a possession receiver/TE hybrid. That's two targets for Cam Newton in addition to second-year receiver Corey Brown, who might surprise in a bigger role.

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The run game and offensive line are question marks, but the defense is the strongest in the division. End Charles Johnson seamlessly took over as the team's sack leader after Greg Hardy was sidelined for the year. The linebacker corps is elite, and a young secondary led by Josh Norman, Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston could be among the league's best very soon.

What could trip Carolina up? If feature back Jonathan Stewart can't maintain his health and the offensive line continues to stumble, the Panthers could be in trouble, but even those issues may not outweigh their talent advantages before the postseason. For now, it's hard not to imagine them as repeat division winners.

Dark horse: Falcons

In 2014, the 6–10 Falcons finished 10th overall in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics on offense and dead last on defense. That's one reason the team chose Quinn to be their new coach. Not only does Quinn have a wealth of defensive knowledge (he's especially a wizard when it comes to getting the best out of his defensive linemen), but he gets the big picture and understands how championship teams operate. The Falcons have some promising position groups to build around, including an explosive passing game, a decent rushing attack and several new pass rushers.

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Start that list with first-round pick Vic Beasley, the Clemson outside linebacker who comes off the snap as explosively as any player in his draft class. His college teammate Grady Jarrett, an undersized but powerful tackle who somehow slid to the fifth round, will also make an impact. If Quinn's wisdom can get the Falcons to league average defensively in 2015, they might be the NFC's surprise team.

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Division MVP: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers

Newton has seen his passing yards decrease in each of his four NFL seasons, and his rushing yards have gone down every year since 2012. It's not all his fault, as Newton saw his top three wide receivers leave in free agency before the 2014 season. Once as much a runner as a thrower, Newton has improved in some ways as a pure quarterback. He holds out for the explosive play less often in favor of drive-sustaining plays, and considering the personnel weaknesses around him last year, it could be said that his 2014 stats didn't tell the whole story.

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If the Panthers are to move past their current big fish/small pond status, Newton will have to reach a new level of efficiency and productivity. He's never thrown more than 24 touchdown passes in a season, and he's also thrown fewer passes than he did the season before every year as a pro. With a new contract that gives him $60 million guaranteed, it's clear that more is expected now. Newton isn't being expected to move completely away from using his legs, but his arm will make the difference for the Carolina offense this season.

Breakout player: Brandin Cooks, WR, Saints

Cooks was leading all rookies with 53 catches when he suffered a season-ending thumb injury in mid-November, and with Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills now out of the picture, Cooks will undoubtedly be Drew Brees's top target as long as he can stay healthy. Cooks doesn't have Odell Beckham Jr.'s athletic upside, but he understands the offense he's in, and he's capable of running just about any route—key attributes in a high-volume passing game as complex as the one New Orleans has.

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“Some of that thinking I was doing last year can really slow you down,” Cooks said in June. “So when you take that out of it, now you’re just out there playing freely, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s just being confident out there on the field and really knowing my playbook down to a ‘T.’ So it’s taking the thinking part out of it when it comes to that, and being able to play faster.”

The Saints will count on Cooks heavily, even though there will be more of a commitment to their run game.

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Rookie to watch: Falcons DT Grady Jarrett

Jameis Winston will get all the headlines, of course, but Jarrett may be the most intriguing divisional rookie. The son of former Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle, Jarrett has what it takes to continue the family tradition of strong defense in the city. Underrated and underdrafted because of his size (6'1", 304 pounds), Jarrett goes all-out on every play and is an excellent one-gap penetrator.

Quinn learned a thing or two about how to make atypical linemen into Pro Bowlers from his time with Pete Carroll in Seattle, but he also taught Carroll a thing or two. It was Quinn's idea to move Red Bryant from tackle to end a few years back, and Quinn was the one behind Michael Bennett's supreme versatility. Jarrett's dimensions shouldn't be an issue now that players like Geno Atkins and Aaron Donald have proven that with the right kind of strength and leverage, shorter interior linemen are actually tougher to block. Jarrett is that kind of player.

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Coach with most to prove: Sean Payton, Saints

Player attrition and a recent history of questionable overpayments by general manager Mickey Loomis forced the Saints to bail out of several contracts this off-season, leaving Payton with one of the bigger on-field challenges he's had to deal with in a tenure as Saints coach that has included the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and a season-long suspension. Brees is 36, and although he led the NFL in passing yardage in 2014, there are questions about his deep ball, his protection and the targets he'll be throwing to this season.

Payton might feel less pressure to keep the offense running at peak efficiency if not for a defense has continually underperformed with Rob Ryan as coordinator. If the Saints make the playoffs, Payton will undoubtedly have more than a handful of Coach of the Year votes—and he'll have earned every one of them.

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Can't-miss divisional game: Panthers at Falcons, Dec. 27

These two teams will likely meet for the division title in Week 16 if one of them hasn't wrapped it up yet. Quinn and Shanahan will have had an entire season to get the Falcons acclimated to a new system on both sides of the ball, and if Atlanta lives up to the high side of expectations, it could be a battle for all the marbles in the NFC South. The Panthers have walked out of the Georgia Dome with a victory on the final weekend of two consecutive seasons, including a 34–3 romp in the de facto division championship game last year. Don't expect the new faces in charge in Atlanta to curb the intensity behind this matchup.