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Falcons, Saints under pressure; Young Bucs build

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The most fascinating division in football is also its most ignored. The NFC's Dirty South is a division without grand tradition, without ratings or page views. It gets relegated to musty corners of sports bars while the Packers, Steelers, Giants and Broncos frolic on big screens.

The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a four-win 2015 season, are scheduled to play on Sunday Night Football three times this year, while the entire NFC South has just two appearances -- both by the Carolina Panthers. You know things are rough when the lowly AFC South receives more offseason buzz. But the football populace is often shortsighted. I am here in praise of the NFC South, the 2016 home to the best collection of quarterbacks and storylines in the NFL. There isn't a division with more at stake.

Two teams on the edge

The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons have been chasing the afterglow for too long, with this season representing a crossroads. The two men most responsible for each organization's rebirth during the past decade, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, don't know where they'll be working next year.

Saints could march up or way down

Brees enters his 11th season in New Orleans costing $30 million against the salary cap. The nine-time Pro Bowler has insisted that he won't negotiate with the team during the final year of his contract, and why should he?

The Saints have finally rebuilt the excellent, young skill position talent around him, and Brees has proven that he'll produce regardless of who's in the huddle. He's set up for success. Brees quietly had a resurgent 2015 on a misshapen Saints squad, finishing a five-year run where he averaged 5,127 yards. (Just two other quarterbacks have ever even topped 5,100 yards; Peyton Manning and Tom Brady did it once each.)

Brees will be able to name his price after another big season. The Saints can't use the franchise tag on him unless they want to pay him $43.2 million, 120 percent of his 2015 cap number. More than 10 years after the Saints came so close to leaving the city, would owner Tom Benson really let the best player in franchise history walk away?

The Saints have taken half measures to prepare for this day. They've sniffed around rookie quarterbacks in the previous two drafts and selected Garrett Grayson in the third round in 2015. In the meantime, Brees has improved while Grayson hasn't developed.

This should be the most fun Saints offense to watch since perhaps 2009, as long as a leaky offensive line doesn't sink the entire unit. Wide receiver Brandin Cooks had the 2015 season everyone expected Randall Cobb to have. Willie Snead -- an undrafted find by coach Sean Payton -- makes difficult contested catches. Rookie Michael Thomas is a walking highlight reel. In the backfield, the powerful Mark Ingram and a revived C.J. Spiller lead the way. Although the team's defense has suffered unfortunate offseason injuries, it has looked more professional since defensive coordinator Rob Ryan left town.

They know how to line up and everything.

Simply sniffing average on defense would let Brees carry this team to the playoffs again in style. But if Payton's latest spin of the defensive coordinator wheel to Dennis Allen doesn't work, expect to hear some grumbling about the team's head coach.

Like Thomas Dimitroff and quarterback Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Payton and Brees ushered in the most successful Saints era in team history. Unlike the rival Falcons, the Saints have a Lombardi Trophy. That title has afforded the team leniency from the fan base when it comes to the team's misadventures (and questionable contracts) in free agency, as well as the aftermath of Bountygate. A third straight losing season, however, could force a logical question: Why is Payton signed through 2020?

It's just as easy to imagine a playoff game in New Orleans as a scenario in which Brees, Payton or both are elsewhere in 2017. The same sliding doors exist if you drive past the 300-some Waffle Houses on the interstates east to Atlanta.

Talented Falcons must make turnaround

Matt Ryan was a top-10 quarterback before proven offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan arrived in 2015. The marriage has proven rocky, typified by Ryan's red zone brain freezes. Now that he's 31 and four years removed from his best seasons, even the biggest Matty Ice supporters (ahem) are starting to wonder if that's all there is.

The arrival of Ryan and Dimitroff in 2008 ushered in the most successful five-year run in Falcons history by far. A team that hadn't ever posted repeated winning seasons suddenly averaged 11 wins for half a decade. The last three seasons, however, have amounted to a slow dulling of Ryan and Dimitroff's shine, with most national fans too bored to pay much attention.

Dimitroff continues to lose juice in his own organization, but owner Arthur Blank is laudably hesitant to move on. Dimitroff lost control of the 53-man roster to new coach Dan Quinn in 2015 while close friend Scott Pioli took over pro and college scouting. Dimitroff knows he is "on the hot seat" to win this year after failing to find a pass rush for years.

It's not hard to make a case that the Falcons will turn it around. Quinn did an underrated job turning sub-prime talent into an average defense last season. This year's group is much faster at linebacker with rookies Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell. Desmond Trufant is a top-five cornerback, and (if healthy) first-round safety Keanu Neal adds more pop to the secondary. This could be the first Falcons defense in years that's fun to watch, with Quinn's Pete Carroll-like energy infecting the team.

The offensive line is in better shape than it has been in years, as well, and Devonta Freeman is a top-10 running back. Ryan's ability to ride that elevator again strangely looms as one of the team's biggest questions. Anything between six and 11 wins is on the table. I love this division this season because every team has enough talent to make the playoffs. That will make falling short tougher to swallow, and Dimitroff knows that he's run out of rope. If this plan doesn't work, someone else will be chasing Carolina next season.

The Panthers' final hill to climb

The Panthers won't change their quarterback or their general manager anytime soon. While the Falcons and Saints are chasing glorious runs, GM Dave Gettleman believes he is just starting one. The biggest question facing Carolina is more existential: How will it handle recent success? To put it another way: How will this team handle adversity?

The improved NFC South and immutable NFL law that what goes up must go down means that the Panthers aren't going 15-1 again this season. Football Outsiders ranked Carolina's schedule as the easiest in football last year. It's projected to be the 12th-hardest this season; though, strength of schedule rankings are about as useful as that preseason power roll that didn't have Carolina in the top 20 last year. (Whoops.)

Carolina has two legitimate defensive stars (Luke Kuechly and Kawann Short) and breakout candidates at every level of the defense (defensive end Kony Ealy, linebacker Shaq Thompson and safety Tre Boston). Gettleman has figured out how to construct a productive secondary every year without spending much money. The team's wideout position should be better with the healthy return of Kelvin Benjamin and the development of buzzy second-year wideout Devin Funchess. Oh, and they have an MVP quarterback that happens to be the best short-yardage back in football. Panthers fans can make a reasonable argument that this Carolina squad should be better than last year, even if their record declines.

That's the logical route. But professional football is rarely logical. The Panthers are trying to make the jump from a great team to a truly dominant organization. The Seahawks and Patriots have set the bar incredibly high. New England has earned a playoff bye for six straight seasons. No other team has ever done it five times in a row. Seattle has ranked in Football Outsiders' team DVOA rankings four straight regular seasons. The Broncos have won 12 games four straight years. The Packers and Steelers are other teams that have stayed at or near the top of the league year after year. Despite the perception of parity, the power teams in the NFL haven't changed a ton this decade. The Panthers are trying to join them.

Owner Jerry Richardson has the coaching staff, front office and quarterback to go on a multi-year run. But we never assume that's going to happen because it so rarely does. Cam Newton has long been my favorite player to watch, but even his most ardent supporters remember 2014, when his streaky accuracy had him outside the top-10 quarterbacks in football. Newton has everything necessary at his disposal to build upon his MVP season. But the part of me that cringed as hot takers criticized Newton for his sullen post-Super Bowl press conference doesn't expect this season to be so simple. It rarely is with Newton.

Young Bucs

Jameis Winston has shown traits in his second preseason that Newton took years to master. He goes through his progressions in the pocket. He looks off defenders. His default setting is downfield, just like coach Dirk Koetter wants.

If the Falcons and Saints are the NFC South Past and the Panthers are the NFC South Present, the Bucs look like the future. There is no better feeling as a fan than seeing a young franchise quarterback emerge because you know he's not leaving for a decade. Like every team in this division, the Bucs should have playoff expectations. The top-level talent is undeniable: running back Doug Martin, wide receiver Mike Evans, linebacker Lavonte David, and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy can all be among the best at their positions. Defensive coordinator Mike Smith should upgrade Lovie Smith's lackluster defense from a year ago.

Tampa's offensive line finally appears settled, and the team should have its first legitimate pass rush in years. Rookie Noah Spence looks like a keeper, and veteran Robert Ayers adds much-needed production.

This has been a nondescript team since almost the moment after it lifted the Lombardi Trophy more than a decade ago, but Winston makes the Bucs a must-watch on Game Pass again. He is unafraid to throw passes into tight windows. He has sped up while the game around him has slowed down. Of the challengers to Carolina's throne, Winston makes Tampa the most dangerous.

Just don't expect to watch one of the league's most exciting young quarterbacks on broadcast TV. No division appears in fewer prime-time games than the NFC South.

While the rest of the country is subjected to stale NFC East rivalries that peaked 30 years ago, the real drama will be happening down south. And if you don't know, now you know.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.
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