They're no longer the champs, but a bull's-eye remains on the Saints' back. New Orleans plays four nationally televised games this year—highlighted by Week 1's Thursday-night showdown with the defending champion Packers—plus three straight road games in October, the latter two against divisional foes. Although Atlanta won the South last year, a gutsy 17--14 New Orleans victory late in December at the Georgia Dome (where the Falcons hadn't yet lost) proved to talent-heavy Atlanta that the Saints' magic from 2009 isn't gone. But while the New Orleans--Atlanta rivalry is the most underrated in the league, the Buccaneers are elbowing their way into contention in the division. They showed toughness late last year, and a favorable fall lies ahead: Only one cold-weather game (Nov. 26 at Green Bay) is on the schedule, and the Bucs appear headed into the season without any major injuries. The Panthers' Cam Newton has had an awesome last 12 months—Heisman Trophy, national championship, No. 1 pick in the draft. His next four might not be so fun.
Eight great matchups involving NFC South teams
WEEK 1 at Thursday, Sept. 8
The Saints have won their last two against the Pack. In a battle of elite quarterbacks, can Drew Brees best Aaron Rodgers on the road?
September 4, 2011
WEEK 1 at Sunday, Sept. 11
The Bucs would have been in the playoffs last year if not for that agonizing 23--20 overtime loss to the Lions in Week 15. Payback time.
WEEK 2 at Sunday, Sept. 18
Fans often leave the Georgia Dome early to beat traffic. They won't for Michael Vick's first start at his old stomping grounds since his return.
WEEK 4 at Sunday, October 2
Former Panther Julius Peppers faces his old team, as does Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who won Super Bowl XX as a Bear.
WEEK 4 at Monday, Oct. 3
The Bucs didn't sell out a single game last year. If Peyton Manning is playing, a visit by the Colts in prime time will change that.
WEEK 5 at Sunday, Oct. 9
A rematch of last year's divisional playoff game, in which the visiting Packers ran roughshod over Atlanta in a 48--21 drubbing.
WEEK 12 at Monday, Nov. 28
This prime-time matchup is a homecoming for Giants QB Eli Manning—his second game in his hometown as a pro.
WEEK 16 at Monday, Dec. 26
Plenty will be on the line when the Falcons fly in amid a likely playoff atmosphere. Will Matt Ryan rise to the occasion?