After running the numbers, ESPN.com pro football writer John Clayton arrived at a win total for every team in the division for 2012. Is the figure too high, too low or spot on?
ATLANTA FALCONS: Clayton has the Falcons going 11-5. He also has them as the only NFC South team going to the playoffs. I think the first part is right, but I'm not so sure on the second (more on that later). The Falcons went 10-6 last season, and it was somewhat disappointing because the team went 13-3 in 2010 and thought it had made upgrades. This time around, the Falcons didn’t make any big trades to jump up high in the draft and they didn’t sign any big-name free agents. That’s because the coaching staff and front office believe the roster is very talented and that changing both coordinators and the offensive and defensive schemes were the best ways to improve this team.
More or less? Eleven wins sounds about right. If Clayton is wrong, it may be because the Falcons win 10 games.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Clayton has the Saints going 9-7 and not making the playoffs. I’m assuming Clayton believes all the offseason turmoil will take a toll on the Saints, and I understand that thinking. But I think the Saints are still a team that can win 10 games and go to the playoffs. Yes, it will be difficult without coach Sean Payton, but the Saints upgraded at linebacker with Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, and coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should make the defense better. We know Drew Brees and the offense are going to be very good. The Saints also are adopting an us-against-the-world mentality, and that will motivate them nicely.
More or less? Clayton could end up being right because the team certainly faces some challenges. But there's enough veteran leadership and motivation in place that this team won't tumble too much.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: Clayton has them going 8-8. I think he is being a little conservative. If things break right and the Saints stumble or the Falcons get caught up in all the pressure they're facing, I could see Carolina winning as many as 10 or 11 games. The Panthers already have the kind of offense that can score points with just about anybody, and it should only be better in Cam Newton's second season.
The defense remains the big question mark, but linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards are back from injuries, and the Panthers drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly with their first-round pick. That's going to help a lot.
More or less? If the Panthers can put a middle-of-the-pack defense on the field, they should be better than a .500 team.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Clayton has the Bucs going 6-10. That would be a two-win improvement over last season, which ended with 10 consecutive losses. But I think the Bucs have their eye on something better than 6-10, and this team is capable of more.
The cupboard isn't bare here. The Bucs have stockpiled some nice young talent in recent drafts. Those players haven't completely proven themselves yet, but players such as quarterback Josh Freeman, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive end Adrian Clayborn can prosper under the guidance of new coach Greg Schiano. The Bucs also gave themselves an infusion of veteran talent by signing receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright, which should bring veteran leadership that was lacking.
More or less? I think the Bucs have a chance to finish closer to 8-8.