Before the Atlanta Falcons can think about Super Bowl redemption, they’ll have to contend with an NFC South Division that could be dangerous to overlook.
A Carolina team that was in the Super Bowl just two seasons ago aims to bounce back from an injury-filled 2016. A young, talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers team looks primed to end a long playoff draught.
And in New Orleans, there is urgency to climb out of a three-year rut of sub-.500 play in what is currently 38-year-old, record-setting quarterback Drew Brees’ last season under contract.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn has gone out of his way to hush any Super Bowl talk — not because he doesn’t want to revisit the pain of his team’s collapse against New England , but because he wants his players focused on what he views as the considerable challenge of staying on top of their division.
“That’s where the mindset has to be to get where you want to go,” Quinn said. “We know if you would look past these other three (NFC South teams), that would be a mistake, knowing the toughness these three groups play with on well-coached teams.”
For Quinn, a former defensive coordinator for Seattle’s 2013 title team, a key characteristic of the division is exceptional play by quarterbacks with varying strengths. He has his own prolific QB in Matt Ryan, a conventional pocket passer with a 6-foot-4 frame and accurate arm.
The Saints, of course, have benefited from Brees’ extraordinary timing and accuracy for more than a decade, including five 5,000-yard seasons passing (and another with 4,952).
Carolina has a true dual-threat QB in Cam Newton. The Bucs have the up-and-coming Jameis Winston, who prefers to stay behind the line of scrimmage, but has the mobility to escape collapsing pockets and give himself more time to throw.
For Atlanta, re-conquering the division will mean contending with “the uniqueness of what Carolina does, the uniqueness of what New Orleans does, the uniqueness of what Tampa does and the way they feature the players in their systems,” Quinn said.
Brees has been around the NFC South long enough to see how hard it has been to stay on top.
Since the division was created by NFL realignment in 2002, Carolina is the only repeat winner with a three-year run from 2013-15.
“We know that every team in our division is going to be somebody to contend with,” Brees said.
Here are some other story lines in the NFC South:
The Falcons had to find a new offensive coordinator when Kyle Shanahan left to take over as San Francisco’s head coach. Atlanta decided to fill the void with Steve Sarkisian , who was briefly Alabama’s offensive coordinator when the Crimson Tide lost the national title game to Clemson.
Sarkisian was a stopgap measure when the Crimson Tide sent Lane Kiffin packing. Now Sarkisian is back in the NFL for the first time since serving as Oakland’s QB coach in 2004.
KEEPING CAM CLEAN
Last season, Newton followed up a 2015 MVP campaign with the worst statistical season (19 TDs, 14 INTs) of his career. He struggled behind an offensive line beset with injuries and played the final month of the season with a partially torn rotator cuff that required offseason surgery.
“I can’t let 2016 happen again,” Newton said.
To help, Carolina signed free agent left tackle Matt Kalil and drafted right tackle Taylor Moton in the second round. They also added two versatile weapons on offense with their first two draft picks — running back Christian McCaffrey and wide receiver Curtis Samuel.
RISING EXPECTATIONS: The Bucs haven’t made the playoffs since 2007 and haven’t won a postseason game since the team’s Super Bowl run 15 years ago. But with Jameis Winston entering his third season, pressure is mounting to change that.
The team added playmakers on offense: receiver DeSean Jackson in free agency and tight end O.J. Howard in the draft. Coach Dirk Koetter is counting on the defense being better, too, following the addition of end Chris Baker and safeties J.J. Wilcox and Justin Evans.
Winston led the Bucs to their first winning record in six years last season and has topped 4,000 yards passing in each of his first two seasons. Doug Martin, the NFL’s second-leading rusher in 2015, also is set to return in Week 4 from a drug suspension .
The Saints brought in 10-year veteran Adrian Peterson hoping he still has some exceptional football left after missing most of last season with a knee injury. They also hope he can catch the ball and will thrive in coach Sean Payton’s inventive formations.
New Orleans also used two of its top three draft picks in an effort to improve a secondary that ranked last against the pass last season. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore was the club’s top pick and safety Marcus Williams was taken in the second round.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers, Saints.
AP Sports Writers Fred Goodall, Charles Odum, Steve Reed contributed to this report.
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