2008 finish: 11-5, second in division (lost wild card game)
The lowdown: The Falcons have added more power to an already impressive offense with the addition of veteran TE Tony Gonzalez from Kansas City. That gives Matt Ryan, coming off his offensive rookie of the year season (completing more than 61 percent of his passes for 3,400-plus yards), even more options in an offense than finished 10th last year in the league in points scored. Fleet WR Roddy White gives Ryan a reliable deep threat and the powerful rushing attack is led by Michael Turner (1,700 yards, 17 TDs), with Jerious Norwood just as capable of piling up yards. Defensively the Falcons tied for last in the NFC in '08 with only 18 takeaways but ranked 11th in points allowed. If Ryan proves his rookie year was no fluke and the defense forces more turnovers, Atlanta should not only be tough but easily accomplish a franchise first: a second straight winning season for the first time in its history.
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2008 finish: 12-4, first in division (lost in division playoffs)
The lowdown: The Panthers still possess one of the league's top rushing attacks, keyed by DeAngelo Williams and second-year RB Jonathan Stewart (who combined for 28 touchdowns and some 2,300 yards last year). QB Jake Delhomme helped Carolina finish seventh in the NFL in scoring but struggled toward the end of the season, including five interceptions in a playoff loss to Arizona. But he will once again have Steve Smith, one of the NFL's elite receivers, in his arsenal. Defensively, the Panthers finished 12th in points allowed last year, but could have a harder time stopping the run without tackle Maake Kemoeatu, out for the season with an Achilles injury. Still, DE Julius Peppers (141/2 sacks last season) should remain a force on the strong unit.
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New Orleans Saints
2008 finish: 8-8, fourth in division
The lowdown: The Saints hope to establish some consistency and have the talent to do it. They enter 2009 with the formidable offensive cast that led the NFL in scoring last year with 473 points: quarterback Drew Brees (offensive player of the year last season), along with the breakaway multi-purpose weapon Reggie Bush and a pair of reliable (when healthy ) pass-catchers — WR Marques Colston and TE Jeremy Shockey. There's still a question whether the Saints can run the ball effectively after finishing 28th in the league last year. The defense ranked 28th, but new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and a healthy Jonathan Vilma at linebacker bode well for improvement.