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Saints strong, nothing's as it seems

This is the seventh of an eight-part series that looks at the upcoming season for each division in the NFL. Today's story looks at the NFC South.

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Is there a more unpredictable division than the NFC South?

The New Orleans Saints were supposed to be the division's worst team last season, but emerged as the best. The Carolina Panthers were the chic preseason Super Bowl favorite and didn't even make the playoffs. The Atlanta Falcons were expected to contend, but faded badly and missed the postseason again. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went from division champs to cellar-dwellers in one year.

Heading into this season the Saints still look formidable, the Panthers should be better and the Falcons and Buccaneers made significant improvements. But nothing is ever what it seems to be in this division.

Here's a rundown of the offseason moves by each NFC South club, along with key questions each team faces entering training camp:

>New Orleans

Key gains: WR Robert Meachem (Tennessee), WR David Patten (Redskins), TE Eric Johnson (49ers), RB Antonio Pittman (Ohio State), LB Brian Simmons (Bengals), CB Jason David (Colts), S Kevin Kaesviharn (Bengals), K Olindo Mare (Dolphins), P Chris Hanson (Jaguars).

Key losses: WR Joe Horn (Falcons), G Montrae Holland (Broncos), LB Danny Clark (Texans), DB Bryan Scott (Titans), S Omar Stoutmire (Redskins), CB Curtis Deloatch.

Breakdown: NFL's top-ranked offense got even more receiving weapons in Meachem, Patten and Johnson. Meachem had arthroscopic knee surgery this week, but should be ready for training camp. Pittman was a surprise draft pick with starter Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush on board. But coach Sean Payton will find a way to use all three backs. Defense beefed up with new starters Simmons, David and Kaesviharn. Re-signing DE Charles Grant, OT Jon Stinchcomb and WR Terrence Copper was big, too. Mare and Hanson upgrade kicking game.

Questions: Saints were a win short of reaching the Super Bowl last year. Can they go all the way this season? Will Bush, QB Drew Brees and WR Marques Colston build on spectacular first season in New Orleans? How will Saints replace Horn, their long-time leader and voice of franchise?

>Carolina

Key gains: QB David Carr (Texans), WR Dwayne Jarrett (USC), C Ryan Kalil (USC), DE Charles Johnson (Georgia), DT Chad Lavalais (Falcons), LB Jon Beason (Miami), CB Curtis Deloatch (Saints), S Deke Cooper (49ers).

Key losses: QB Chris Weinke (released), WR Keyshawn Johnson (released), DE Al Wallace (released), LB Chris Draft (Rams), S Kevin McCadam (Jaguars).

Breakdown: The athletic Beason is heir apparent to fellow Hurricane MLB Dan Morgan. Keyshawn Johnson's release was a stunning development, but it showed how highly the Panthers regard Jarrett. Kalil was a first-round talent acquired in second round. Fourth-rounder Johnson could contribute immediately. Carr may turn out to be club's future at quarterback. Pro Bowl DT Kris Jenkins was shopped around before draft.

Questions: With Johnson gone, will Jarrett be good enough to start opposite Steve Smith? When will Beason replace Morgan, who has suffered multiple concussions? Does Carr's signing mean Jake Delhomme's days are numbered? Even with Cooper, safety is weakest link on defense.

>Atlanta

Key gains: Coach Bobby Petrino (Louisville), QB Joey Harrington (Dolphins), FB Ovie Mughelli (Ravens), WR Joe Horn (Saints), OG Toniu Fonoti (Dolphins), OG Justin Blalock (Texas), DE Jamaal Anderson (Arkansas), CB Chris Houston (Arkansas), CB Lewis Sanders (Texans), K Billy Cundiff (Saints).

Key losses: Coach Jim Mora Jr. (Seahawks), QB Matt Schaub (Texans), RB Justin Griffith (Raiders), WR Ashley Lelie (49ers), DE Patrick Kerney (Seahawks), LB Edgerton Hartwell (Bengals), LB Ike Reese (released), CB Jason Webster (released), CB Kevin Mathis (released).

Breakdown: The Petrino era is off to a rocky start with Vick's alleged involvement in a dog-fighting ring and a lawsuit filed against the team by DT Grady Jackson. Going from Schaub to Harrington is a downgrade at backup quarterback. Mughelli's $18 million deal raised eyebrows. Horn brings veteran leadership. Falcons got potential starters -- Anderson, Blalock and Houston -- with first three draft picks.

Questions: Will Vick's legal issues undermine the Falcons' season? Trading Schaub looks like a regrettable decision now. Will Anderson soften blow of losing Kerney, the club's best pass rusher? Jackson wants out and Falcons' run defense will suffer if he leaves.

>Tampa Bay

Key gains: QB Jeff Garcia (Eagles), FB B.J. Askew (Jets), OT Luke Petitgout (Giants), OG Matt Lehr (Falcons), OG Arron Sears (Tennessee), TE Jerramy Stevens (Seahawks), DE Gaines Adams (Clemson), DE/DT Kevin Carter (Dolphins), DT Ryan Sims (Chiefs), LB Cato June (Colts), LB Patrick Chukwurah (Broncos), CB Sammy Davis (49ers), CB/S Tanard Jackson (Syracuse), S Sabby Piscatelli (Oregon State), QB Jake Plummer (Broncos).

Key losses: OG Sean Mahan (Steelers), OT Kenyatta Walker (released), DE Dewayne White (Lions), LB Shelton Quarles (released), CB Juran Bolden (released).

Breakdown: Garcia, who was 6-2 in Philadelphia, was a good signing. Sears could become third rookie O-line starter in two years. Petitgout is slated to start at left tackle. Askew might eventually replace Mike Alstott. Adams, the draft's best pass rusher, Jackson and Piscatelli infuse youth and talent to aging defense. June is too small for many teams, but Bucs prefer speed over size.

Questions: Will Garcia take Chris Simms' job? Bucs are gambling on Petitgout, who is coming off back and leg injuries. What does heart of Bucs' defense -- LB Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and Simeon Rice -- have left?

Next: NFC West.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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New Orleans: Won?t catch anyone by surprise this year.

Carolina: Seeking redemption after sub-par season.

Atlanta: Vick's legal problems have dogged franchise.

Tampa Bay: Age finally caught up to defense last year.

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