The favorite: Saints. Last season New Orleans was out for revenge after a controversial loss in the NFC championship game the year before. The Saints went 13-3 and won the NFC South for the third straight season, prevailing by four games over Atlanta and Tampa Bay. However, they were eliminated on wild-card weekend by Minnesota in OT, the second straight year the Saints were knocked out of the playoffs in overtime. It was also New Orleans’ first one-and-done postseason since 2010. Drew Brees missed five games with a thumb injury, but backup Teddy Bridgewater kept the season thriving by going 5-0 as a starter. Bridgewater is now in Carolina, and the Saints turned to Jameis Winston to back up the 41-year-old Brees, who signed a two-year, $50 million extension. The Saints made Michael Thomas the highest-paid receiver in the league last year at five years and $100 million, with $61 million guaranteed. He led the NFL with 1,725 yards, and his 149 receptions set an NFL single-season record. The already potent offense should get a boost with a healthy Alvin Kamara. He started only nine games last season due to injuries and scored just six touchdowns after having 18 the previous year. This is a contract year for Kamara, and the Saints will need him to return to his 2018 form. Defensively, the Saints added Malcolm Jenkins and re-signed Janoris Jenkins to shore up a secondary that will be tested in this division by Tom Brady of Tampa Bay, Matt Ryan of Atlanta and their old mate Bridgewater in Carolina. New Orleans should be favored in every game before going to Tampa Bay in Week 9, so the potential is there for another good start.
Live dog: Falcons. While Tampa Bay adds Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to what was already the No. 1 passing offense and No. 3 total offense last season, the value play in the division is on Atlanta at a big price. The “Dirty Birds” started 1-7 but rallied in the second half of the season to finish 7-9, including winning their last four games and saving Dan Quinn’s job. Atlanta was third in passing offense and fifth in total offense last season, and this year the entire offensive starting unit is made up of former first-round picks. That includes the newest addition, RB Todd Gurley, who was released by the Rams and signed a one-year, $5.5 million deal. Atlanta has drafted to improve an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries last season. Those injuries certainly helped Matt Ryan become the most-sacked QB in the league last season with 48. Nevertheless, the Falcons have one of the most potent receiving duos with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley, who is also in a contract year. The offense should be fine, but will the defense? Last year’s second-half surge was largely due to the defense. After allowing an average of 31.3 ppg for the first eight games, the Falcons’ stop unit allowed only 18.6 ppg over the last eight games. The schedule is relatively difficult, with road games at Dallas, Green Bay, Minnesota and Kansas City. But this team could be dangerous and will largely get ignored behind New Orleans and the Brady hype in Tampa Bay.
Prop players: The Falcons’ Ryan and Gurley could be a hedge against one another or they could work in concert. Ryan is 13-2 to lead the NFL in passing yards. He rated fifth last year. Obviously, he has Jones and Ridley at wideout, and they’ll replace Austin Hooper with Hayden Hurst at TE. The Falcons also like to throw out of the backfield, and that could bring Gurley into the equation. He is 20-1 at Westgate SuperBook USA to win NFL Comeback Player of the Year. Gurley has been through a fair number of injuries but just turned 26. He comes off his worst season in terms of production, but he could be a good buy-low player since he is only three years removed from being the NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Though only on a one-year deal, this is Gurley’s job. The leading returning rusher for the Falcons is Brian Hill, who had just 322 yards last season. Perhaps Gurley has seen better days, but he should be highly motivated after the Rams gave up on him. The defense will ultimately determine whether the Falcons make any noise, but their offense should be potent and give both props solid value.
Big games on the board
Tampa Bay at New Orleans, Week 1: NFC South fans don’t have to wait long to get the most anticipated matchup. Brady makes his debut in red, black and pewter as the Bucs travel to the Superdome. The Saints swept the season series last year. The return match will be in Tampa in Week 9.
Carolina at Tampa Bay, Week 2: Brady and Rob Gronkowski make their home debuts at Raymond James Stadium.
San Francisco at New Orleans, Week 10: This is a rematch of the Week 14 classic from last season when the 49ers left New Orleans with a 48-46 victory. That result cost the Saints likely home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Minnesota at New Orleans, Week 16: The Saints will be looking for the gift of revenge on Christmas. Minnesota ousted the Saints from last season’s playoffs. New Orleans also became the first team with a 13-3 regular-season record to lose in the wild-card game.
New Orleans (Over 10.5 Even, Westgate SuperBook USA)
This is a win total for which you want to look for alternate lines and see if you can go Over 10 with juice (-140 or so). Tampa Bay is receiving all the offseason hype, and New Orleans got eliminated on the first weekend of the playoffs. The Saints also committed two more years and $50 million to Brees, whose mind and accuracy are still intact — he had his career-best passer rating last season — even though his arm strength has clearly declined. Nevertheless, the Saints showed they were well-rounded enough to win without elite QB play, going 5-0 with Teddy Bridgewater at the helm while Brees was out with a thumb injury. And the offense still ranked third in points per page and sixth in yards per play.
The Saints also had a good free-agency season, as they upgraded depth and talent at most positions, including QB with Jameis Winston. Winston is a nice insurance policy on a one-year, $1.1 million deal. In the backfield, a healthy Alvin Kamara is a top-three back in this league. QB Taysom Hill is a wild card for whom defenses must prepare, Michael Thomas is arguably the best receiver in the league and free-agent WR Emmanuel Sanders (two years, $16 million) should be an upgrade over Ted Ginn Jr. They will be breaking in a rookie on the offensive line with Michigan first-rounder Cesar Ruiz sliding from center to guard, but he was rated the best pass-blocking center in college football by Pro Football Focus.
The defense, while not elite, is much better than it used to be and has talent in the secondary with CBs Marshon Lattimore, Janoris Jenkins and Patrick Robinson. The Saints added Malcolm Jenkins in free agency to pair with safeties Marcus Williams and D.J. Swearinger. DE Marcus Davenport has to make the leap in his third season to match Cam Jordan’s productivity in the pass rush. If that happens, this is a top-10 defense. New Orleans’ window of opportunity may be closing, but it’s still ajar just enough to climb through.
Atlanta (Over 7.5 Even, Westgate SuperBook USA)
If the division -- and even the conference -- has a potential sleeper, it could be Atlanta. Things went sideways quickly for this team last season with a 1-7 start, but the Falcons rallied to go 6-2 in the second half of the season.
QB Matt Ryan continues to put up big numbers with WRs Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley at his disposal, and he seems comfortable running Dirk Koetter’s offense, but the running game and the offensive line play must improve. RB Todd Gurley (replacing Devonta Freeman in the backfield) had a career-worst year last season but still managed over 1,000 all-purpose yards and 14 TDs. Health is a concern for Gurley, but Atlanta should be getting a player with a massive chip on his shoulder and is still just 26. The Falcons invested heavily in the OL last year with two first-round picks, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary. McGary had typical rookie struggles, and Lindstrom broke his foot in the season opener but returned in Week 14 and didn’t give up a sack.
On defense, Atlanta was one of the NFL’s worst stop units through the first eight weeks and then became one of its best. The Falcons are a fairly average unit but should be improved up front with the addition of Dante Fowler Jr., and assuming better health for LB Deion Jones. The secondary is the primary concern, and they hope first-rounder A.J. Terrell will address that. Ricardo Allen is a veteran leader at safety, and Keanu Neal is a former first-rounder and a 2017 Pro Bowler, but his season has ended prematurely two years in a row. All hands need to be on deck for this secondary.
The schedule is not the easiest -- Seattle, at Dallas, Chicago, at Green Bay and at Minnesota in five of the first six weeks -- but this team is being overlooked. If Atlanta can just get off to a .500 start through six games, it can clear this win total and surprise.
Tampa Bay (Under 10 -130, Circa)
Jameis Winston joined the 30-30 club last season with 33 TDs and 30 INTs, and the Bucs parted ways with him. Enter 43-year-old Tom Brady, who will certainly improve ball security. However, Brady short-armed a lot of throws last year that he used to make look easy, and his 60.8% completion rate was his lowest since 2013. Bruce Arians likes a let-’er-rip philosophy in his passing game, but is Brady capable of doing that anymore?
Brady will be motivated to prove the “system QB” designation wrong and he is surrounded with many weapons, including a top-five receiver in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, who has increased his production in the slot much like Arians helped Larry Fitzgerald do in Arizona. Tampa Bay also has a former first-rounder at TE with O.J. Howard and a great red zone target with Cameron Brate. Plus, at Brady’s request, Rob Gronkowski was coaxed out of retirement. But does Gronkowski have the desire and the hunger anymore? The Bucs will be even more pass-happy with a running game that consists of third-year man Ronald Jones (724 rushing yards in ’19), third-round rookie Ke’Shawn Vaughn of Vanderbilt and a long-past-his-prime LeSean McCoy.
Defensively, the Bucs stayed relatively intact and arguably should make more strides on this side of the ball. Their front seven is one of the better units in the league, led by DE Shaquil Barrett and his NFL-leading 19.5 sacks. DTs Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh are still effective run stoppers, but the Bucs ranked 30th in passing yards allowed, so the opposition didn’t feel obliged to run much. Devin White had an outstanding rookie season at LB and while the secondary remains a question mark, second-rounder Antoine Winfield Jr. has the potential to be a major contributor immediately. Todd Bowles is a top-level defensive coordinator but has a lot of work to do with this back end.
This is a talented team, but too many things have to go right for Tampa Bay to be the contender the media and the public are hyping. The Bucs will probably fall somewhere between genuine contenders and the overhyped Cleveland Browns of 2019.
Carolina (Over 5.5 -115, Circa)
Perhaps no team had more offseason changes than the Panthers. Carolina went 5-11, the Cam Newton era ended, coach Ron Rivera was fired and defensive leader Luke Kuechly retired. These changes were set in motion when David Tepper bought the team in 2018.
This is Tepper’s team now, with a new coach in Matt Rhule, a new QB in Teddy Bridgewater and an overall new direction. Rhule brings in Joe Brady, fresh off winning the national championship at LSU, as his offensive coordinator. They clearly have faith in their offensive scheme, as the Panthers drafted all defensive players. Bridgewater is a game manager, and that’s what this offense wants to do since it has Christian McCaffrey, who is not a dominant runner but is the best pass-catching RB in the league. D.J. Moore leads the receiving corps, and while he’s not a pure burner, he is a great run-after-catch receiver. Carolina traded a younger Pro Bowl guard, Trai Turner, for an older offensive tackle, Russell Okung. That seems a curious move, but the experiment at left tackle with 2019 second-rounder Greg Little was a disaster, and he moves to the right side this season.
On defense, there is nowhere to go but up. Carolina ranked 31st in scoring defense (29.4 ppg) — and that was with Kuechly. There is talent up front with 2019 first-rounder Brian Burns (7.5 sacks as a rookie) and 2020 first-rounder Derrick Brown. But the unit is primarily composed of young guys and well-traveled veterans who have struggled to find permanent homes. This team could surprise early before reality sets in with so many new pieces in place.