New Orleans Saints
2009 record: 13-3 (First in NFC South)
Michael LombardiAs long as Drew Brees is at QB, they will be tough to beat. More depth and talent might not mean more wins, but they will be better overall.
The amount of defensive TDs scored by the Saints last year. New Orleans' 25th-ranked unit was able to overcome its deficiencies by making so many big plays. It won't be easy to repeat that trend.
Sharper is coming off a career year with nine picks and three TDs, but will miss the first six games while on the physically unable to perform list. A balky knee and the emergence of Malcolm Jenkins threatens to push Sharper into a backup role. Although he still has the potential to be a key contributor, he must rediscover the edge that stoked his competitive fire a season ago.
Reggie BushThe electrifying playmaker has failed to live up to his lofty draft status, but he continues to play a pivotal role in the Saints' offense. As a versatile weapon out of the backfield, Bush gives coach Sean Payton the flexibility to dictate mismatches out of their base formation. Though Bush lacks the pop to run effectively between the tackles, his outstanding open field running skills make it imperative for Payton to get him touches.
Thomas ready to reboundPierre Thomas failed to meet fantasy expectations last season, but he's a good bet to rebound in 2010. Not only will he retain his early-down role, but Thomas should also see more goal-line work with Mike Bell out of the mix. He could re-emerge into a high-end No. 2 back.
Three pivotal games
Sept. 9 vs. MinnesotaThe Rematch. Seven and a half months after beating the Vikings to cement their first conference championship, the Saints play host to Brett Favre once again. With each team harboring hopes of a return date in the NFC title game, this matchup could go a long way toward deciding home field advantage.
Nov. 25 at DallasThe Cowboys handed New Orleans its first loss last season in Week 15 at the Superdome. In front of a national audience on Thanksgiving, the Saints will have an opportunity to gain revenge for that defeat. The game might take on greater meaning than simple revenge, however, if both clubs are as good as expected. It could be a battle for NFC supremacy heading into the season's final month.
Dec. 27 at AtlantaThe NFC South title could be on the line as these old rivals square off in the second-to-last week of the season. The Saints were 4-1 in divisional road games last season (that one loss came at Carolina when they rested their starters in Week 17), but they will likely be tested against a rising Falcons team with championship designs.