The Carolina Panthers will attempt to do this season what no team has ever done since the NFC South came into existence in 2002: Repeat as division champions. Will it happen? No. Here's a look at each club's NFL odds for a finish of No. 1-4.
New Orleans Saints
NFL odds (from BetOnline): first +110, second +220, third +300, fourth +900
The Saints have won at least 11 games every year since 2009 when Sean Payton was their coach -- so I'm not counting the 2012 season when he was out due to suspension. New Orleans has been just about unbeatable at home since then as well under Payton and I see no reason why the Saints won't go 8-0 at the Superdome again despite tough games against Green Bay, San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore. That's key for them to win the NFC: get home-field advantage (or play only dome teams in the NFC postseason, the Lions, Falcons and Rams). So all the Saints likely need to do is go 5-3 on the road and that should be good for the top seed. It won't even take 13 wins to take the South, I'm guessing 11 will do it. That seems a lock as long as Drew Brees stays on the field.
NFL odds: first +300, second +220, third +250, fourth +280
I try not to read much into the preseason, but it's hard not to with the Falcons considering I see them in depth each week on HBO's awesome "Hard Knocks" show. I definitely think last year's 4-12 record was a fluke as Atlanta lost a bunch of close games early and then saw star receiver Julio Jones lost for the season in Week 5. He's a difference-maker and appears 100 percent now after playing in Atlanta's second preseason game. The Falcons were blown off the field in that one, 32-7 at Houston. Maybe it means nothing, but running back Steven Jackson is already hurting and the running game was 32nd in the league last year when he was hurt/struggling. His backup is fourth-round rookie Devonta Freeman, one of the featured guys on "Hard Knocks." Not sure he's ready to be a featured back yet, especially if you have seen him block. In addition, Atlanta lost starting left tackle Sam Baker for the season, so rookie Jake Matthews will protect Ryan's blind side.
NFL odds: first +325, second +275, third +225, fourth +250
I touched on teams that could potentially finish with the worst record in 2014 and have the top overall pick in the 2015 draft. Needless to say I'm not a fan of the Panthers despite last season's 12-4 finish and NFC South title. We are still waiting on the suspension length of star defensive end Greg Hardy and the receiving group appears as bad as expected thus far, although rookie Kelvin Benjamin does look like a good player down the road. I have no faith in new starting left tackle Byron Bell, who started at right tackle the past three seasons after being signed in 2011 as an undrafted rookie. He's going to be a major downgrade for Newton's blindside from the retired Jordan Gross. I could legitimately see the Panthers starting 1-7, with the only win Week 2 vs. Detroit. Maybe 1-9 with Week 9 vs. New Orleans and Week 10 at Philly. Not saying that will happen because this remains a strong defense, but you have to score a little too.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
NFL odds: first +650, second +350, third +250, fourth +110
Tampa Bay might be the most improved team in the NFC now that the Bucs have a proven head coach in Lovie Smith. They also were very active on the free-agent market, landing the likes of Bears quarterback Josh McCown, Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson and Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner. Don't be shocked if the Tampa Bay defense jumps into the Top 5 of the NFL. The Bucs already had a dominant defensive tackle in Gerald McCoy, a rising superstar linebacker in Levonte David and one of the most intimidating safeties in the NFL in Dashon Goldson. Not totally sold on McCown, but backup Mike Glennon looked pretty good as a rookie. First-round rookie receiver Mike Evans looks like a beast and running back Doug Martin will bounce back in a big way from his disappointing 2013 campaign. The only worry I see is the offensive line.
NFL picks: Saints win the division by at least two games, followed by the Bucs, Falcons and Panthers.