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NFC South Preview: Panthers' bid to repeat is a three-way battle / Division rating: 14.4

1. Carolina Panthers


Offense: RBs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were first duo in NFL history to combine for more than 2,000 yards (2,351) and 20 touchdowns (28) rushing. Capable offensive line gives QB Jake Delhomme time to find deep threat WR Steve Smith (78 catches for 1,421 yards in 2008). Rating: 4.0

Defense: Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason is an instinctive sideline-to-sideline playmaker. Entering contract year, DE Julius Peppers could top 14 1/2 -sack season. Losing run-stuffing DT Maake Kemoeatu (torn Achilles tendon) creates big hole up front. CBs Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall are very talented. Rating:4.0.

Special teams: At 39, K John Kasay is still money on field goals. Coverage is good because kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd led NFL with 30 touchbacks and P Jason Baker gets lots of hang time. Returns a question mark, but Smith's skills are useful in a pinch. Rating: 4.0.

Coaching: John Fox has built team that fits his power football philosophy. Rating: 4.0.

On the spot: Delhomme. Seeks redemption after six-turnover meltdown in playoff loss.

Prediction: Despite wicked schedule, they're still team to beat. Record:

/b> 10-6.


2. New Orleans Saints


Offense: QB Drew Brees leads NFL's most explosive attack. He could post another 5,000-yard season passing to a bevy of weapons, led by WR Marques Colston, RB Reggie Bush and TE Jeremy Shockey. Brees is well-protected by solid O-line. How much Saints get from running game depends on health of Bush and Pierre Thomas. Rating: 5.0.

Defense: Saints' pass rush depends on availability of DEs Will Smith and Charles Grant, who could be suspended first four games for taking a banned supplement. MLB Jonathan Vilma is key to front seven. Top DBs are CB Jabari Greer and S Darren Sharper (NFL's active leader with 54 career INTs). Rating: 3.0.

Special teams: When healthy, Bush is electric returning punts. K John Carney only has job because Garrett Hartley is serving league suspension. First-year P Thomas Morstead has to show he can create field position advantage, which Saints failed to do last year. Rating: 3.5.

Coaching: Head coach Sean Payton knows offense. Gregg Williams' defensive expertise is welcome addition. Rating: 4.0.

On the spot: Bush. Time running out to live up to lofty expectations.

Prediction A good defense away from winning division. Record: 9-7.


3. Atlanta Falcons


Offense:QB Matt Ryan should build on sensational rookie year with improved receiving corps that includes future Hall of Fame TE Tony Gonzalez and WR Roddy White, who is coming off breakout year (career-highs 88 catches and 1,382 yards). Bruising All-Pro RB Michael Turner (1,699 yards and 17 TDs) powers NFL's second-ranked rushing attack.Rating: 4.0.

Defense: Rookie DT Peria Jerry expected to help improve porous run "D." MLB Curtis Lofton is top player in revamped linebacker corps. Secondary has talent, but is very young.Rating: 3.0.

Special teams: P Michael Koenen's skyscraping kicks and rock-solid coverage helped Falcons set NFL record for fewest punt return yards allowed (49) in a season. K Jason Elam was highly productive in 16th season. RB Jerious Norwood's breakaway speed is an asset on returns. Rating: 4.5.

Coaching: First-year head man Mike Smith and O-coordinator Mike Mularkey did great job with Ryan. Rating: 3.5.

On the spot: CB Chris Houston. Former first-rounder must be lock-down defender secondary needs.

Prediction: Eager to prove last year was no fluke. Record: 9-7.


4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Offense: Earnest Graham, former first-round pick Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward, a 1,000-yard rusher with Giants last year, must provide running game to support passing of QB Byron Leftwich, who has good but volatile receivers in TE Kellen Winslow Jr. and WR Antonio Bryant (career-best 83 catches in '08).Rating: 2.5.

Defense: MLB Barrett Ruud and CB Ronde Barber take over as leaders after Bucs great Derrick Brooks was released as part of veteran roster purge. DE Gaines Adams, a 2007 first-rounder, is due for breakout season. Thanks to Barber (100 tackles, 4 INTs), Bucs were fourth against pass last year. Rating: 2.5.

Special teams: Pro Bowler Clifton Smith was among NFL leaders in punt and kickoff returns. P Josh Bidwell dropped 27 balls inside 20-yard line. Bucs hope K Mike Nugent is upgrade over inconsistent Matt Bryant. Rating: 4.0.

Coaching: Head coach Raheem Morris, 32, has leadership skills, but has much to learn. Rating: 2.0.

On the spot: Morris. He'll be under microscope to show he can handle job.

Prediction: Bucs facing another year in division cellar. Record: 4-12.

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