COACH: Dan Quinn, 4th season (29-19, .604)
LAST SEASON: 10-6, 3rd place
PLAYOFFS: beat L.A. Rams, 26-13, in wild card round; lost to Philadelphia, 15-10, in divisional.
OUTLOOK: The Falcons suffered the same fate as every other Super Bowl loser since the Bills in the early 1990s. They failed to get back to the big game the season after losing a heartbreaker in overtime to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. Matt Ryan had only 20 touchdown passes, compared with 38 the year before in his MVP season, and coach Dan Quinn’s defense came up short in too many situations, although the Falcons did manage to get back to the playoffs in 2017. They play in one of the league’s best divisions, so getting back to the Super Bowl will be a major challenge.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
COACH: Sean Payton, 13th season (105-71, .597)
LAST SEASON: 11-5, 1st place
PLAYOFFS: beat Carolina, 31-26, in wild card; lost to Minnesota, 29-24, in divisional.
OUTLOOK: Drew Brees continues to play at a high level heading into his 18th season, although his touchdown passes (23) were down from a year earlier (37). It was the first time he’d thrown fewer than 32 TD passes since the 2007 season. He doesn’t have a great set of receivers, and tight end continues to be an issue in the post-Jimmy Graham era. All-purpose tailback Alvin Kamara does add explosiveness in the backfield. The defense was much improved last year after addressing a chronic weakness in the secondary.
COACH: Ron Rivera, 8th season (64-47-1, .576)
LAST SEASON: 11-5, 2nd place
PLAYOFFS: lost to New Orleans, 31-26, in wild card.
OUTLOOK: Cam Newton is a one-man offense for the Panthers, having accounted for 28 touchdowns last season (22 passing and six rushing). But Carolina will need to show more balance on offense and hope that Newton doesn’t repeat as the team’s No. 1 runner as well as passer. Christian McCaffrey enters Year 2 with an increased role. Linebacker Luke Kuechly continues to be a dominant performer, but concussion problems in recent years remain a concern. The Panthers aren’t quite as good as their Super Bowl team from 2015, but they’re not that far off from being a contender.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
COACH: Dirk Koetter, 3rd season (14-18, .438)
LAST SEASON: 5-11, 4th place
OUTLOOK: Jameis Winston’s three-game suspension to start the season means that America’s backup — Ryan Fitzpatrick — will get another chance to run the show until the Bucs’ former No. 1 overall pick returns. It’s a daunting challenge for Fitzpatrick, as Tampa faces the Saints, Eagles and Steelers to start the season. The Bucs do have excellent receivers in Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and they expect big things from 2017 first-round tight end O.J. Howard. The defense is solid, having added former Giants pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. Even so, this is a tough division that only gets tougher without Winston early on.