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NFL preview 2017: NFC South outlook

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan warms up before

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan warms up before the NFL Super Bowl LI football game against the New England Patriots on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2017, in Houston. Photo Credit: AP / Eric Gay

ATLANTA FALCONS

COACH: Dan Quinn

3rd season (19-13, .594)

LAST SEASON: 11-5, 1st place

PLAYOFFS: beat Seattle, 36-20, in division playoff; beat Green Bay, 44-21, in NFC Championship; lost to New England, 34-28, in Super Bowl

OUTLOOK: The Falcons come off a Super Bowl run in 2016, as Matt Ryan was the overwhelming choice in winning his first MVP Award. But it was a heartbreaking end to what had been a magical year, as the Falcons blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl. Ryan insists the Falcons can do what no other Super Bowl loser since the 1993 Buffalo Bills have done: get back to the title game the year after losing it. While there’s certainly reason to think the Falcons will be playoff worthy, it remains to be seen whether the scars from their collapse against the Patriots will resurface. On paper, though, they look every bit as good as last year. It was a transcendent season for Ryan in 2016, as he threw for a career-high 38 touchdown passes and a career-low seven interceptions.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

COACH: Ron Rivera

7th season (53-42-1, .557)

LAST SEASON: 6-10, 4th place

OUTLOOK: If the Falcons need any evidence of how tough it can be to come back from a Super Bowl loss, they need not look very far. The division-rival Panthers went 6-10 in 2016, just a year after they made a Super Bowl run and lost to Peyton Manning’s Broncos. The Panthers hope that Cam Newton, who had offseason shoulder surgery, can look more like he did in his MVP season in 2015 than last year. They add all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey, will provide big-time help. The defense remains solid, anchored by MLB Luke Kuechly and Charles Johnson. Julius Peppers returns for what could be his final season.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

COACH: Dirk Koetter

2nd season (9-7, .563)

LAST SEASON: 9-7, 2nd place

OUTLOOK: The Buccaneers’ stock is on the rise with the continued maturation of Jameis Winston and with a solid defense that includes defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. In addition to receiver Mike Evans, Winston has two new offensive weapons, as the Bucs signed free-agent receiver Desean Jackson and drafted Alabama tight end O.J. Howard. Winston appears to be ready for a breakout season, and his play will likely be the determining factor in whether the Bucs are good enough to be a playoff contender.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

COACH: Sean Payton

12th season (94-66, .588)

LAST SEASON: 7-9, 3rd place

OUTLOOK: The Saints remain an offensive threat with ageless (he’s 38) Drew Brees. And Adrian Peterson is now part of the backfield after being released by the Vikings. The Saints have moved on from wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a former first-round pick who was dealt to the Patriots. Veteran receiver Ted Ginn will help fill the void, as well as 2016 second-round receiver Michael Thomas. Coby Fleener is the starting tight end, but he wasn’t as vibrant a player last year as the Saints had hoped. The bigger issue in New Orleans, as it has been for years, isn’t scoring points, it’s preventing them. They hope first-round cornerback Marshon Lattimore can help a chronically weak secondary.

New York Sports