2014 NFC South Preview: Will the Saints Keep Marching?

The New Orleans Saints seem like the best team in the NFC South. Can anyone take them down?

Since 2002, when the NFL realigned to its current four-division format in each conference, there have only been five NFC franchises to win Super Bowls. Two of them come from the NFC South, which has been one of the most unpredictable and balanced divisions in football since the changes over 10 years ago.

And as we approach the 2014 season, the division seems as strong as ever, with multiple teams capable of contending for the division's third Super Bowl ring. Here's a look at the 2014 NFC South, in reverse order of our algorithm-based team rankings. (nERD is a calculation of expected point differential against an average NFL team.)

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

nERD: -2.92
Chance of Winning Division: 5.7%
Offensive Rank: 29th
Defensive Rank: 13th

The Buccaneers finished 4-12 in 2013, and used the offseason to change nearly everything about their franchise. From the uniforms to the head coach, from the quarterback to highest paid player, everything had to go. As a result, the team that finished 29th in our Adjusted Offensive Net Expected Points (adjusted for strength of schedule) and 15th on the defensive side looks nothing like it did before.

Josh McCown takes over under center for the Bucs, a season after finishing sixth in Passing NEP despite only dropping back to pass 235 times. This means, despite half of the workload of Tom Brady and Tony Romo, he outproduced both quarterbacks in our NEP metric. He's joined by a duo of tall rookie pass catchers (Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins) who pair with Vincent Jackson and Tim Wright to form a promising looking bunch of receivers.

The defense swaps out Darrelle Revis for Alterraun Verner, adds a pass rusher in Michael Johnson, and brings in a proven defensive head coach in Lovie Smith. Lovie posted three of the nine best defensive performances using our numbers over the duration of his time with the Bears.

The Bucs do have question marks at guard, where they don't feature any players with any sort of promising NFL experience, and of course under center, where they feature Josh McCown hoping for anything resembling his crazy breakout performance of 2013. A good year for the quarterback will help the Bucs outperform their ranking of 29 in our preseason offensive metric, and boost them closer to contention in a tough division.

3. Atlanta Falcons

nERD: 1.64
Chance of Winning Division: 16.6%
Offensive Rank: 6th
Defensive Rank: 26th

Like the Buccaneers, the Falcons also finished 4-12 in 2013. But unlike their rivals from Tampa Bay, Atlanta didn't make sweeping changes across the board. Mike Smith returns as head coach, while the front office added a few pieces to the defensive and offensive lines to shore up the trenches, where the Falcons were horrible in 2013.

The team couldn't protect Matt Ryan or set up for the running game very well at all last year, but still managed to finish sixth in offense within our metrics. This was without Julio Jones, who makes his triumphant return in 2014 to bolster a receiving corps that was unrecognizable at times last season. The running back situation is slightly improved with the addition of Devonta Freeman and return to health of Steven Jackson, although it's tough to rely on a player with Jackson's age and workload history.

The offense managed to turn out alright last season despite all of the issues in Atlanta. The defense didn't fare quite as well. The defensive Falcons posted the worst season for a defensive unit since 2008 according to our math, and are hoping that a couple of additions to the defensive line and the return of a couple of injured players will help them bounce back. The Falcons couldn't stop the pass at all last season, and failed to bring in any promising pass rushers this summer, which may lead to a similar issue in 2014.

But Matt Ryan and the offense figure to carry the team as best they can in the upcoming season, as Ryan's numbers with Julio Jones have been much better than his numbers without him. If they can cope with the loss of Tony Gonzalez and get just enough out of the defense, our numbers say they should at least be in the mix for the playoffs by season's end.

2. Carolina Panthers

nERD: 4.73
Chance of Winning Division: 27.4%
Offensive Rank: 16th
Defensive Rank: 2nd

The Panthers surprised a lot of folks last season with their strong performances on defense, surging into playoff contention and shutting down opponents with a fearsome front seven. The unit as a whole finished third within our metrics last season, and begin this year ranked second. Greg Hardy's status as an eligible player thanks to offseason legal issues could put a temporary damper on their production as a whole, but once they're at full strength, they'll likely be one of the better defenses in the league yet again.

The offense returns Cam Newton under center with a questionable bunch of targets who aren't really that much worse than last season. Newton himself finished in the middle of the pack among passers last season, but is limited by his team's run-heavy play-calling and his lack of talent available at receiver.

It's the defense that will keep Carolina among the best in the NFL as they were last year, and that means more of the same from linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, and strong seasons from the no-name defensive backs who make the most of the smothering pass rush in front of them. The Panthers are in salary cap hell, and were unable to add much talent this summer, meaning depth may be an issue if there are any major injuries on that side of the ball.

And the running game needs to produce for Carolina to get where they want to go in 2014. The Panthers run the ball as much as anyone (they had the fifth-lowest pass-to-run ratio in the league last year), so they need their well-paid running backs to stay healthy and take pressure off of Cam Newton to do it all under center for the NFC South title contenders.

1. New Orleans Saints

nERD: 8.17
Chance of Winning Division: 50.3%
Offensive Rank: 3rd
Defensive Rank: 9th

Everyone expected the New Orleans Saints to have a solid year on offense last season. After all, Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and he had plenty of skill position talent to work with, including a top tight end in Jimmy Graham. But it was the defense that finished in the top 10 and surprised everyone, helping bolster the Saints as a top team in the NFC.

New Orleans has added even more talent to that defense, which figures to finish near the top of the league yet again under defensive mastermind Rob Ryan. This makes New Orleans one of the most well-rounded teams according to our metrics, as they rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense heading into the season.

The offense is scary good, led by the incredibly consistent Drew Brees. Brandin Cooks joins the offense to "replace" Darren Sproles as the option on short passes with a good amount of speed and quickness, while Graham and Marques Colston assume their roles as Brees' favorite intermediate targets. Kenny Stills will move up the depth chart after the departure of Lance Moore, keeping the overall talent at receiver nearly the same as it has been over the past few years.

The Saints don't seem to have a flaw heading into the season, and that's why they're at better-than-a-coin-flip odds to win a very competitive NFC South. If teams can find a way to slow down Drew Brees, they might stand a chance of knocking them off, but based on history, that's a very tall order. New Orleans has to be considered one of the favorites to win it all in 2014.