Panthers going for 3rd straight title in middling NFC South
Now that Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are the first team since the NFC South was established in 2002 to repeat as division champs, they see little reason why they shouldn't win it again.
After all, not a single team in the division finished above .500 last season.
Going 7-8-1 was good enough for the Panthers to finish ahead of Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay, and it's not clear whether any of the teams are much better.
But the Panthers looked like a team on the upswing last December, when they might have saved coach Ron Rivera's job by finishing the regular season on a four-game winning streak to sneak into the playoffs.
''The biggest thing we have to do is maintain our expectations and we can't let outside expectations get in our way and distract us,'' Rivera said. ''It comes back to what we expect from us and what we want to accomplish.''
Then there's defensive end Mario Addison, whose optimism was unbridled when the Panthers gathered for training camp.
''We're going all the way,'' Addison said. ''We have all the tools and all we have to do is put it together. I see a Super Bowl. I feel it, man.''
A year ago at this time, New Orleans was a popular choice to take the division and even contend for a Super Bowl. Instead, the Saints struggled to a 7-9 finish.
Coach Sean Payton responded with a slew of roster moves - the biggest being the trade of star tight end Jimmy Graham to Seattle - so his salary cap constrained club could reallocate resources to address weaknesses, particularly on defense.
One constant for New Orleans is 36-year-old quarterback Drew Brees, who tied with Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger for the NFL lead in yards passing last season with 4,952.
Still, there are rumblings by fans and analysts alike that the veteran QB's skills might be in decline.
''I don't pay attention to the preseason rankings individually or as a team,'' Brees said. ''I don't know who in the media said that we are not going to do anything or we are going to finish whatever in the division or we are not going to make the playoffs or I am washed up. I really don't pay attention because I really don't care. Because deep down I know what is going to happen this season.''
Here's a look at the NFC South:
NEWTON ON THE MOVE: The Panthers gave Newton a five-year, $103 million contract extension this past offseason, but that doesn't mean offensive coordinator Mike Shula will be changing the way he uses the mobile quarterback. Shula says the Panthers will still use Newton in the zone read and don't plan to put any restrictions on the 6-foot-5, 245-pound QB. That could be one way to mitigate the loss of top receiver Kelvin Benjamin, whose preseason knee injury required season-ending surgery.
QUINN'S CHALLENGE: First-year Falcons coach Dan Quinn has some major deficiencies to address. He inherits a defense that finished 2014 as far from the Seahawks' NFL-leading standards as possible. The Falcons gave up the most yards passing and total yards in the league. They were near the bottom in sacks and points allowed. Atlanta's offense has a good foundation with quarterback Matt Ryan throwing to wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White. But the offensive line has struggled and the running game is a work in progress.
SAINTS OVERHAUL: The Saints hope less reliance on Graham makes their offense more balanced and unpredictable, as was the case with their 2009 Super Bowl squad. New players on offense include center Max Unger and versatile running back C.J. Spiller. On defense, two of the Saints top three cornerbacks are new: Brandon Browner and Delvin Breaux. Rookies Stephone Anthony and Hau'oli Kikaha are on track to start at linebacker. The Saints ranked second-to-last in total defense last season, so there's pressure on third-year coordinator Rob Ryan to improve his unit.
HOPEFUL BUCCANEERS: Tampa Bay has finished last in the division the past four seasons, and escaping the cellar with a rookie quarterback won't be easy. The Bucs are confident, though, that No. 1 overall draft pick Jameis Winston can make a difference if a revamped offensive line can give him time to throw and open holes for running back Doug Martin. Coach Lovie Smith is also counting on his defense, led by tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, to be better. Last season's 2-14 finish was Tampa Bay's worst in 28 years, but Smith stresses, ''It's about this year, and we know what's at stake.''
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Panthers, Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers.
AP Sports Writers Steve Reed, Charles Odum and Fred Goodall contributed to this report.
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