2010: 13-3, first in NFC South; lost 48-21 to Packers in division round
The skinny: The Falcons are positioning themselves for a lengthy postseason run, and it will be on the back of, arguably, one of the most potent offenses in the league. They traded up 21 spots in the draft to select Alabama receiver Julio Jones, left, sixth overall, adding him to a group that includes Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White, receiver Harry Douglas and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. All in all, franchise quarterback Matt Ryan, who has improved in each of his first three seasons, should have plenty of weapons. That includes speedy running back Michael Turner. The question will be on defense, which in 2010 ranked 22nd against the pass and had just 31 sacks (tied for 20th). It also lost a field position x-factor in punter/kicker Michael Koenen to the Bucs in free agency. Atlanta hopes its new $30 million defensive end, Ray Edwards, can team up with end John Abraham (13 sacks in 2010) to be a fierce one-two punch. The Falcons will be tested early. Four of their first five games are against playoff teams from a year ago.
2010: 2-14, fourth in NFC South
The skinny: The Cam Newton Era begins this year with the Auburn quarterback and No. 1 overall pick, right, taking the reigns in Week 1 under first-year coach Ron Rivera. The Panthers will likely need all of Newton's athleticism coming off a season in which they had the worst offense in the league (258.4 yards per game). Carolina added some weapons, including veteran tight ends Greg Olsen (trade from the Bears) and Jeremy Shockey (free agency) to go with stalwart receiver Steve Smith. The Panthers will also have run-blocking right tackle Jeff Otah back after he missed all of last season to knee surgery. That should make running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams capable of duplicating their 2009 season, when each racked up 1,100 yards. The defensive line has a huge hole with tackle Ron Edwards gone for the season after tearing a triceps in his first practice. And the Panthers will have to rely on a lot of unproven players, including former USF star defensive lineman and third-round pick Terrell McClain. Carolina should make some strides, but it will likely be another long season considering the competition in the NFC South.
New Orleans Saints
2010: 11-5, second in NFC South; lost 41-36 to Seahawks in wild-card round
The skinny: The Saints, coming off a disappointing playoff loss, have what it takes to overcome the Falcons and reach the Super Bowl, like they did two years ago. They look a little different with veteran running back Darren Sproles replacing Reggie Bush (traded to the Dolphins). Sproles could be a difference-making, change-of-pace back/slot receiver, teaming up with first-round pick Mark Ingram to improve last season's 28th-ranked rushing attack. Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees, right, lost a weapon in tight end Jeremy Shockey (now in Carolina) and will need receiver Marques Colston, slowed by a knee injury during the preseason, to be healthy. The sixth-year pro, who has 154 catches over the past two seasons, has undergone five knee surgeries. Like the Falcons, the Saints did some upgrading on the defensive line, drafting end Cameron Jordan in the first round and signing tackle Shaun Rogers and end Turk McBride in free agency. They hope to rack up more than the 33 sacks they had in 2010.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer