Power Rankings: NFC South powers falling

It is March, but we’ve already got the first edition of the 2012 ESPN.com Power Rankings and they don’t paint a pretty picture for the NFC South.

Although two division teams were in the top 10 of the final rankings for the 2011 season, there isn’t a single NFC South team in this top 10. The New Orleans Saints, who finished last season ranked No. 2, have taken a huge tumble. They’re No. 11.

That’s still the highest ranking of any team in the division, but I think it also might be the biggest and fastest drop in the history of our rankings. It’s somewhat understandable. Since the NFL’s punishments for the Saints (including the suspension of coach Sean Payton for a year) were announced there’s been a lot of speculation that New Orleans could suffer some ugly consequences on the field. The voters obviously agree with that.

I really don’t know how much the Saints will be impacted by what has happened and part of me believes they’ll still be very competitive as long as Drew Brees is on the field. But I’d like to wait and see what happens as far as possible player suspensions before drawing any conclusions on how much the Saints will suffer on the field.

The Atlanta Falcons haven’t had nearly as turbulent an offseason as the Saints, but they still have fallen quite a bit in the eyes of the voters. The Falcons were No. 7 in the final 2011 rankings. This time around, they’re No. 13. I can’t read the minds of the voters, but I feel pretty safe in saying Atlanta’s drop in the rankings is a combination of things. Start with the fact the Falcons didn’t make any big splash in free agency and then throw in their ugly loss to the Giants in the playoffs. I think that game still weighs heavily in the minds of the voters.

That’s the downside in these rankings for the NFC South. The upside is that Carolina and Tampa Bay are on the rise. The Panthers ended last season at No. 23, but they’ve moved up five spots to No. 18.

I think it’s pretty obvious to just about everyone that Carolina already has a pretty good offense and the defense should only get better with the return of linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis and defensive tackle Ron Edwards from injuries, and there’s an expectation out there Carolina will continue to add to its defense through the draft.

The Buccaneers ended last season with a 10-game losing streak and were No. 29 in the final rankings. They’ve moved up to No. 24.

I think that’s a reflection of a couple of things -- new coach Greg Schiano will bring some order to a team that clearly lacked it last season and the Bucs made a pretty big splash by signing free agents Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright.