The NFC South was all set up for New Orleans to claim their third division crown in four years when Roger Goodell threw a monkey wrench into the works. New Orleans will now enter the season without Sean Payton or Jonathan Vilma for the year, Joe Vitt for six games, and Will Smith for four games.  However, the Saints remain the division favorites as seen in the odds comparison below.

Their edge is only slight. When these odds get converted into percentages we see that the division is once again slated to be a toss-up between the Saints and Falcons, with Carolina inching around the 15 percent mark.Looking at these charts, the question seems to be which of the two teams do you want to ride with: Atlanta or New Orleans?  But these are teams heading in very different directions; one is on the rise, and one could be in line for a big fall.  Also, there may be value with one of the division’s up-and-comers.

The New Orleans Saints are coming off a season in which they won the NFC South crown with a 13-3 record. The suspensions that came from the bounty scandal will hurt them, but this is a team that has established a winning tradition over the last three seasons. Pete Carmichael will be running the Saints offense in Sean Payton’s absence. He got a dry run at doing so last season when Payton suffered his knee injury, and the offense didn’t lose a step.

Drew Brees was able to settle his contract dispute without missing any meaningful time. Ben Grubbs will fill in nicely for Carl Nicks on the offensive line, meaning Robert Meachem is the only missing weapon on offense, and his targets will go to Devery Henderson. Things went ultra-perfect in Darren Sproles’ first season in New Orleans, so a regression should be expected from him, but that may be offset by an uptick in touches for Mark Ingram. Vilma will miss all of 2012, but this is an improved linebacking corps with the additions of Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne.

The absence in New Orleans that may be felt more than any of the others is the loss of Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams. Payton arrived in New Orleans in 2006, the same year the Saints brought in Drew Brees. In Payton’s first three years, the team posted a 25-23 record. The offense fired on all cylinders from the start, but was held back by poor defensive play. Then in 2009, Payton took a $250,000 pay cut so that the team could bring in Williams to coach the defense. The move paid immediate dividends as the Saints won the Super Bowl in Williams’ first year.

New Orleans compiled a 37-11 record in the regular season in three years with Williams as the team’s defensive coordinator. The offense may not take a step back, but the defense will, and that will make it tough for New Orleans to return to the playoffs. They will be held back by the defense as they were in the years before Williams arrived.

Matt Ryan and Mike Smith came to Atlanta in 2008. The team hasn’t finished worse than 9-7 since they arrived, winning the division in 2010 with a 13-3 record.  The Falcons have had a lot of success on the ground by pounding Michael Turner while enjoying a strong home-field advantage, but expect the 2012 edition of the Falcons to look different than the previous versions. Turner turned 30 in February, and while he does have some gas left in the tank, it’s likely that Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers will have to pick up some of the slack.

This year’s Falcons will try to win games through the air with a more wide-open, no-huddle offense, and they should have plenty of success doing it. The team may possess the league’s best wide receiver combo in Roddy White and Julio Jones.  Add the league’s most prolific pass-catching tight end in Tony Gonzalez to the mix, and the chains will be moving at light speed in the Georgia Dome.

Mike Nolan has been brought in to coach the defense. He’ll fix the pass rush that was broken a year ago, while the addition of Asante Samuel makes Atlanta one of the deepest teams at cornerback in the league. Atlanta has improved since last season, and a full year of Jones means they should be able to keep up with any opponent offensively.

Last year was the first season for Ron Rivera and Cam Newton in Carolina. The team finished 6-10, but Newton emerged as a star. With a year of football under his belt, the Panthers may be ready to take the next step. Newton burst onto the scene with terrific performances early, but his numbers faded as the season went on. This year will be all about learning to adjust and avoid the sophomore slump as defenses figure out how to slow him down. The Panthers added Mike Tolbert to an already crowded backfield, but they’ve shown some interesting looks in the preseason with two runners in the backfield, and appear to have a plan to utilize Tolbert with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The defense remains a concern, but they should improve on their six wins from a year ago.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may have done the most to improve in the offseason. Greg Schiano replaces Raheem Morris as the team’s head coach. Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks were added through free agency, while what’s left of Dallas Clark (not much) will play at tight end. Doug Martin was taken in the first round of the draft to push LeGarrette Blount, and it looks like he’s already taken over Blount’s spot atop the depth chart. Josh Freeman and Mike Williams should bounce back after down years. Schiano will want to rely heavily on the run, but this is a team that will spend a lot of time playing from behind. The team’s improvements on offense don’t appear to be enough to cover up their defensive deficiencies, and they will likely finish right around where they did in 2011, at 4-12.

Here’s how I see the NFC South breaking down:
1.    Atlanta (10-6) – They’ll have no trouble scoring; another winning season is a certainty.
2.    New Orleans (9-7) – Too much uncertainty; the defense will hold them back.
3.    Carolina (9-7) – They’ll improve, then compete for the division in 2013.
4.    Tampa Bay (5-11) – They fixed the offense, next year they’ll have to fix the defense.

The Falcons look to be worth a small play, as they have a slight edge over New Orleans as the front runners in the division.  There is value in getting them as high as +150 on and Bet365.

There will still be questions about whether or not the Falcons can perform in the playoffs, but we’ll have cashed our tickets by then. Carolina is a decent dark horse, offering value at +600 on Bet365, but Newton may need another year of experience as defenses make their adjustments to him.