2012 NFL Season Countdown: NFC South Preview

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One week from today, the Giants and Cowboys kick off the 2012 NFL season. Seven days. Seven! Needless to say, I, along with millions of other NFL fans, cannot wait. We continue our countdown to the football season by continuing our preview of the NFL's eight divisions; today we take a look at the NFC South.

(To view previous NFL previews, click on any of the following division names: AFC East, AFC North, AFC South, AFC West, NFC East)

Atlanta Falcons

Top Falcons Games of 2012

Sept. 17 vs. Broncos Tickets »
Nov. 4 vs. Cowboys Tickets »
Nov. 29 vs. Saints Tickets »
Dec. 16 vs. Giants Tickets »
Falcons TN.com Team Page »

The 2011 season was marked by inconsistencies for the Falcons, but it was strong enough for the team to finish 10-6 and secure a spot in the playoffs. It was the team's second straight year in the postseason. Much of Atlanta's roster is identical to last year's, so the main core of talent, including QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner, will need to step up if the Falcons hope to win the division.

Projection: With the Saints likely to take a step back in 2012, the Falcons are in prime position to capture the AFC South crown.

Carolina Panthers

Top Panthers Games of 2012

Sept. 20 vs. Giants Tickets »
Oct. 7 vs. Seahawks Tickets »
Oct. 21 vs. Cowboys Tickets »
Dec. 23 vs. Raiders Tickets »
Panthers TN.com Team Page »

Thanks to QB Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers were one of the most exciting teams to watch last season, despite finishing with a record of 6-10. This season will be much different for the Panthers because they now face much more lofty expectations. Many expect the Panthers to improve greatly in 2012, and that improvement is hinging on the development of Newton as a quarterback.

Projection: The Panthers will be better and more consistent this season, but it won't be good enough to make the postseason. Carolina's big jump will come in 2013.

New Orleans Saints

Top Saints Games of 2012

Sept. 9 vs. Redskins Tickets »
Oct. 7 vs. Chargers Tickets »
Nov. 5 vs. Eagles Tickets »
Nov. 25 vs. 49ers Tickets »
Saints TN.com Team Page »

The Saints had the most tumultuous offseason of any NFL team, with both players and coaches being suspended thanks to "Bountygate." Those suspensions include head coach Sean Payton, who will miss the entire season. His absence will cost the Saints a few wins, and that could be the difference between New Orleans going back to the postseason or missing out.

Projection: The suspensions will undoubtedly hurt the Saints, but some predict that they will play with a chip on their shoulder. I don't think that will be the case and they will not be as good as last year, more than likely finishing around 9-7 or 10-6, good enough for second place.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Top Buccaneers Games of 2012

Sept. 9 vs. Panthers Tickets »
Oct. 14 vs. Chiefs Tickets »
Nov. 11 vs. Chargers Tickets »
Dec. 9 vs. Eagles Tickets »
Buccaneers TN.com Page »

The Buccaneers were by far the most disappointing team in the NFL in 2011, finishing 4-12 just one year after winning 10 games. The team made a lot of changes to the roster and coaching staff in order to right the ship, but all of those changes won't mean anything unless QB Josh Freeman improves his performance over last year. All indications in the preseason show that Freeman will be much improved.

Projection: The new coaches and more disciplined play will help the Buccaneers this season and could help them be the surprise team in the NFL this year. Not playoff good, but much more respectable than 2011.