Posted by ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Raymond James Stadium, capacity 65,857)
Opened in 1998, this stadium was considered cutting edge at the time and it’s still considered one of the best facilities in the league. The natural grass surface consistently has been rated the best, or very close to the best, in the league in surveys by the NFL Players Association.
Also known as “Ray Jay’’ by the locals, this stadium’s crown jewel is a pirate ship in the end zone that is one of the most identifying characteristics in the league. The firing of the cannons when the Bucs get inside the 20-yard line fits perfectly with the stadium’s pirate theme. The one carryover from the old days at Tampa Stadium (a.k.a. “The Big Sombrero’’) is the chant where one side of the stadium yells “Tampa’’ and the other responds with “Bay.’’
Wow factor: 4 wows (out of 5)
Carolina Panthers (Bank of America Stadium, capacity 73,504)
Ideally located in Uptown Charlotte, which is really downtown, this stadium is the hub of center city on game days. Without a lot of true stadium parking, tailgates create a festive atmosphere throughout the city streets and the traffic situation is one of the best in the league because there are countless exit routes.
Like Tampa Bay’s stadium, the natural grass field in Charlotte consistently is ranked among the best in surveys of NFL players. This stadium helped pioneer seat licensing, so fans feel like they have an ownership stake. Carolina fans sometimes get labeled as a wine-and-cheese crowd and they can be a little slow in coming back to their seats after halftime. But, when the Panthers are playing well, this stadium can be as loud as any in the league.
Wow factor: 3 wows
New Orleans Saints (Louisiana Superdome, capacity 72,003)
The oldest facility in the NFC South opened in 1975, but renovations have kept this dome up with the rest of the league. The facility was largely redone after Hurricane Katrina and the Saints recently reached a new long-term lease agreement that also will bring the 2013 Super Bowl back to New Orleans.
The atmosphere is festive on game days as the party New Orleans throws on every day of the year escalates. The tailgates here are as good as any in the league. Games are a social event in New Orleans and the dome has been sold out for every game since the Saints returned in 2006 (all of this year’s games already are sold out). Although some fans are coming off very long nights, the noise inside the Superdome can be incredibly loud when the Saints are on the field.
Wow factor: 3 wows
Atlanta Falcons (Georgia Dome, capacity 71,228)
Despite lots of renovations (FieldTurf installed in 2003, upgrades to the club seats in 2007 and new paint on the outside and new seats in 2008), the Falcons are making noise about their desire for a new stadium. They’re looking at several venues around Atlanta, but building a new stadium close to or on the existing site seems to be a strong possibility. That would be good because the location is on the fringes of downtown and the game-day atmosphere can be festive.
The Georgia Dome has played host to every event imaginable, but the Falcons are the main tenant. The team has endured some lean years, but the dome came to life last year when quarterback Matt Ryan arrived and the Falcons started winning. That might help the Falcons get a new stadium, but the last few years in the dome have the potential to be memorable.
Wow factor: 1 wow