PIGSKIN PREVIEW TAB ATLANTA FALCONS
Head coach: Jim Mora, Jr., third season.
2005: 8-8, third in NFC South.
Key additions: DE John Abraham (trade, NY Jets); WR Ashley Lelie (trade, Denver); S Lawyer Milloy (Buffalo); CB Jimmy Williams (draft).
Key losses: OT Kevin Shaffer (Cleveland); DE Brady Smith (released); OT Barry Stokes (Detroit).
Position battle: Wide receiver –; the Falcons have three underachieving first-round draft picks after trading for Ashley Lelie. Roddy White and Michael Jenkins top the depth chart, but if Lelie is all he says he is, he could supplant either if they don't produce.
The buzz: The Falcons have improved their defense dramatically with the additions of veterans John Abraham and Lawyer Milloy, and the drafting of Jimmy Williams. Much of their success or failure hinges on the play of quarterback Michael Vick and an offense that now must rely on diminutive Warrick Dunn to carry the rushing load after the trade of T.J. Duckett. This could be the toughest division in the NFL, and the Falcons will battle Tampa Bay for a wild card spot.
Key stretch: Oct. 15 N.Y. Giants, Oct. 22 Pittsburgh, Oct. 29 at Cincinnati.
Head coach: John Fox, fifth season.
2005: 11-5, second in NFC South, lost to Seattle in NFC Championship.
Key additions: WR Keyshawn Johnson (Dallas), C Justin Hartwig (Tennessee), DT Damione Lewis (St. Louis), DT Ma'ake Kemoeatu (Carolina), RB Deangelo Williams (draft).
Key losses: LB Will Witherspoon (St. Louis), CB Ricky Manning (Chicago), RB Stephen Davis (released).
Position battle: Running back –; Five-year veteran DeShaun Foster tops the depth chart now, but he could end up splitting time or yielding the starting job altogether to first-round draft pick Deangelo Williams. Williams was drafted because Stephen Davis was released and Foster has been placed on injured reserve three times in his brief career.
The buzz: Carolina is a trendy pick to reach the Super Bowl this season after advancing to the NFC Championship game a year ago. The Panthers' defense is still one of the best, with Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker on the line. Jake Delhomme is back at quarterback, and WR Keyshawn Johnson was added opposite Steve Smith.
Key stretch: Dec. 10 N.Y. Giants, Dec. 17 Pittsburgh, Dec. 24 at Atlanta.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Head coach: Sean Payton, first season.
2005: 3-13, fourth in NFC South.
Key additions: QB Drew Brees (San Diego); RB Reggie Bush (draft); C Jeff Faine (Cleveland); LB Scott Fujita (Dallas).
Key losses: C LeCharles Bentley (Cleveland); DE Darren Howard (Philadelphia); QB Aaron Brooks (Oakland).
Position battle: Wide receiver –; Will new QB Drew Brees have enough passes to go around to Joe Horn, Devery Henderson, former Patriot Bethel Johnson and Donte Stallworth? Throw RB Reggie Bush in the mix, and Brees may have the toughest job on this team –; distributing the ball. Horn is a lock to start. After him, it's anyone's guess.
The buzz: The Saints made some good additions, particularly landing Bush as the No. 2 pick in the draft, but Brees will have to show that his shoulder injury has fully healed in order for opposing teams to fear the Saints' offense. The team hasn't added enough, though, to crack the top two in this division.
Key stretch: Dec. 17 Washington, Dec. 24 at N.Y. Giants, Dec. 31 Carolina.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Head coach: Jon Gruden, fifth season
2005: 11-5, NFC South champions; lost to Washington in a wild card game.
Key additions: OT Torrin Tucker (Dallas); G Davin Joseph (draft).
Key losses: QB Brian Griese (Chicago); S Dexter Jackson (Cincinnati).
Position battle: Center –; John Wade vs. Sean Mahan. Wade has started all 16 games at center for the Bucs in three of the past four seasons, including during their Super Bowl run in 2002. The nine-year veteran is being challenged by fourth-year pro Mahan, who, if he wins the starting job, would make the average age of the Bucs' starters on the line 25.5.
The buzz: Gruden liked the way the Bucs were playing at the end of last season, so he made minimal changes. The loss of Griese means the team is committed to making Chris Simms its full-time starter this year. If he stays healthy, the Bucs have a legitimate shot of repeating as division champions. If not, the offense –; and the season –; will be in the hands of Tim Rattay or Bruce Gradkowski.
Key stretch: Dec. 3 at Pittsburgh, Dec. 10 Atlanta, Dec. 17 at Chicago.