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NFC South preview: Tom Brady transforms Buccaneers into a contender

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady throws a pass during practice in August.
(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)
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A team-by-team look at the NFC South and the predicted order of finish for the division.

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1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Rob Gronkowski makes a catch in practice.
(Chris O’Meara / Associated Press)

2019 | 7-9, 3rd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2007

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WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

The Buccaneers made an incremental step forward from their 5-11 finish in 2018 by going 7-9 yet missed the playoffs for the 12th season in a row. Jameis Winston became the first quarterback with at least 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in a season.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Tom Brady. The six-time Super Bowl winner left New England and signed a two-year, $50-million deal with the Buccaneers, where he’ll have Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and a lured-out-of-retirement Rob Gronkowski as targets. What’s more, he’s playing for Bruce Arians, and no coach is better with quarterbacks.

KEEP AN EYE ON

The offensive line. Tampa Bay desperately needs help there, and used a first-round pick on Iowa tackle Tristan Wirfs. He’s slotted as the right tackle, but he is the team’s likely left tackle of the future. Of course, now’s not the time to have him step in and protect Brady’s blind side.

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2. New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) calls together teammates during practice.
New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) calls together teammates Marcus Davenport (92), defensive tackle David Onyemata (93) and defensive tackle Malcom Brown (90) during a team practice session.
(Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

2019 | 13-3, 1st in South

Last year in playoffs | 2019

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

For the second season in a row, the Saints went 13-3 — this time despite losing Drew Brees to a thumb injury for five games. Teddy Bridgewater went 5-0 as the replacement starter. They played host to the Vikings in a playoff opener, and lost in overtime.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Cam Jordan. Sure, Brees is the captain of this ship, but the Saints need Jordan to keep the pressure on opposing passers. He had a career-best 151/2 sacks last season, making the Pro Bowl for the third season in a row, and anchors a line that ranked third in sacks with 51.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Emmanuel Sanders. The Saints had been searching for a secondary receiving threat to take some of the pressure off Michael Thomas. With San Francisco last season, Sanders burned them for seven catches and 157 yards, but this year he could bring New Orleans luck. After all, he has reached the Super Bowl with the Steelers, Broncos, and 49ers.

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3. Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley II works with running backs coach Bernie Parmale.
Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley II works with running backs coach Bernie Parmale during a practice session in August.
(John Bazemore / Associated Press)

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2019 | 7-9, 2nd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2017

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

After a 1-7 start, the Falcons turned it around and went 6-2 in the second half. Consecutive 7-9 seasons, however, have tested the patience of owner Arthur Blank. Coach Dan Quinn needs to win or box up his office.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

The defense. Rahim Morris, who was coaching receivers, moved to the other side of the ball and took over as defensive coordinator midway through last season. He got back to basics, cutting out the exotic schemes and going with a more straightforward zone. That worked, but can he keep it up in a division with Drew Brees and now Tom Brady?

KEEP AN EYE ON

Todd Gurley. The former Rams and Georgia star is trying to reinvent himself after his knee deteriorated by the carry during his last chapter in Los Angeles. As long as Matt Ryan is slinging the ball, Gurley won’t be the focal point, but the Falcons still need him to establish something of a ground game.

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4. Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey carries the ball during a team practice session in August.
(Nell Redmond / Associated Press)

2019 | 5-11, 4th in South

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Last year in playoffs | 2017

WHAT HAPPENED LAST SEASON

The Panthers got off to their first 0-2 start since 2013 but recovered and were 5-3 at the midway mark. Then the bottom dropped out, and they lost their final eight games. They had lost quarterback Cam Newton to a foot injury two weeks in, and fired Ron Rivera in early December.

PINNING THEIR HOPES ON

Offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Brady, 30, the onetime New Orleans Saints offensive assistant, overhauled Louisiana State’s scheme and guided No. 1 pick Joe Burrow to a Heisman Trophy. Can he have the same effect on new Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater?

KEEP AN EYE ON

Christian McCaffrey. This is one of the few NFL offenses built around a do-everything running back. Last season, the former Stanford star became the third player in league history with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same season. But all those touches can take a toll. Ask Todd Gurley.

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