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NFL Power Rankings 2014: Saints Lead the NFC South after the Preseason

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Now that the regular season is upon us, we take a look at how the Saints and their division opponents fared throughout the 2014 preseason, and how their preseason rankings last year compared to their performances during the 2013 regular season.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the fact that many NFL fans are drawn to the television when preseason games finally roll around, most agree that preseason performance gives very little indication as to how well a given team will perform during the regular season.  But that doesn't stop us from wondering how our teams match up against others, even before the first regular season game is played.

Before we look at the NFC South standings from the 2014 preseason, let's review last year's standings.  How did their 2013 preseason rankings compare to their regular season performances last year?

2013 Preseason NFL Rankings: (NFC South)

This Week

Offense

Defense

Passing

Rushing

Saints

3

11

3

23

Falcons

10

23

11

11

Panthers

32

26

29

29

Buccaneers

31

21

32

16

At the end of the 2013 Preseason, the Saints were firmly atop the NFC South.

2013 Season Final NFL Rankings: (NFC South)

This Week

Offense

Defense

Passing

Rushing

Saints

4 (↓1)

4 (7)

2 (1)

25 (↓2)

Falcons

14 (↓4)

27 (↓4)

7 (4)

32 (↓21)

Panthers

26 (6)

2 (24)

29

11 (18)

Buccaneers

32 (↓1)

17 (4)

32

22 (↓6)

By the numbers, the New Orleans Saints had a great 2013 regular season.

By September, the New Orleans defense was already showing signs of significant improvement over the 2012 season.  And those critics who claimed the preseason rankings meant nothing could only watch as the defense continued to improve over the course of the regular season.

Other than a significant decline in rushing performance between September and January, the Falcons and Bucs did not have statistically drastic changes in their offensive or defensive rankings, relative to the rest of the NFL.  The Panthers defense, however, had a regular season which was dramatically improved over their defensive performance in the preseason; and it was strong enough to carry their offense into the postseason.

So how did the NFC South stack up against the rest of the NFL in this year's preseason?

2014 Preseason NFL Rankings: (NFC South)

This Week

Offense

Defense

Passing

Rushing

Saints

3

28

4

11

Falcons

20

21

8

29

Panthers

27

23

22

26

Buccaneers

31

14

31

23

At the end of the 2014 Preseason, the Saints are once again firmly atop the NFC South.

Neither the Saints nor the Panthers came close to their level of defensive excellence which we witnessed during the 2013 regular season.  Will they return to top form for the coming months? And will New Orleans be able to maintain, or even improve upon, the rushing performance we saw during the preseason? There is no way to know for certain.  But we can begin our season as armchair analysts with a look at the coming week's games for the NFC South:


Saintshelmet_medium New Orleans Saints (3-1):
The New Orleans Saints defense has not performed as well this preseason as they did last year, nor as well as they did during the 2013 preseason.  But with the return of many defensive weapons, and additions like Jairus Byrd, many expect Rob Ryan to once again field one of the NFL's top squads.  Perhaps there was a more driven defensive effort during the preseason last year, as they were focusing on installing and trying out the new defensive coordinator's system.  And with the key pieces already in place this year, New Orleans would be more focused on letting veterans rest and stay healthy while the coaching staff evaluated new players.  This tactic, particularly if the scheming was kept to a minimum during the preseason, would lead to a much lower defensive ranking than we should expect to see in the coming months.

Offensively, even without Drew Brees at the helm, Sean Payton seems to have again fielded one of the best teams in the league this preseason.  Even with the loss of Darren Sproles, the Saints should have one of the top passing attacks in the league.  And if the rushing attack remains even among the top half of the NFL, New Orleans should be poised for a strong drive into the postseason.

This Sunday, the Saints kick off their 2014 regular season with a trip to Atlanta to take on their bitter rivals, the Falcons.  Last year, the tone for the entire season was set for both teams during this first game, which the Saints not only won but did so with a very physical message that Rob Ryan's new defense was something to be respected.  Given some recent statments by Atlanta personnel, and Falcons fans, it seems as if many expect New Orleans to win this season opener, as well.

[Current Falcons Rankings: Offense - 20th; Defense - 21st; Passing - 8th; Rushing - 29th]

Falconshelmet_medium Atlanta Falcons (2-2):
The Atlanta Falcons won their first and last preseason games this year, against the Dolphins and Jaguars respectively.  However, they lost to the Texans in Houston during Week 2, and again at home against the Titans in Week 3.

Now, hoping to rebound from a dismal 2013 season during which the Falcons only won four of their sixteen games, Atlanta plays host to the New Orleans Saints this coming Sunday.  The Saints have won the majority of the contests between these two teams since Sean Payton became head coach, and the Falcons are expected to begin the 2014 season with a loss in their own dome.

[Current Saints Rankings: Offense - 3rd; Defense - 28th; Passing - 4th; Rushing - 11th]

Panthershelmet_medium Carolina Panthers (2-2):
The Carolina Panthers defeated the Chiefs and Steelers last month, but lost to the Bills in the opener, and to the Patriots during Week 3 of the preseason.

Last year, the Panthers had a late-season rally to catapult them into the playoffs, after which they lost their first postseason game.  Since then, Cam Newton has undergone surgery for a lingering ankle injury, and recently suffered a cracked rib during Carolina's loss the Patriots.  Furthermore, he has lost all of his wide receivers from the 2013 roster, and will be playing with an entirely new receiving corps.

This week, the Panthers head to Tampa to take on the Buccaneers.  Carolina is expected to come out with a win, but nobody really knows how these two teams will match up Sunday afternoon.

[Current Bucs Rankings: Offense - 31st; Defense - 14th; Passing - 31st; Rushing - 23rd]

Bucshelmet_medium Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-3):
Having lost to the Jaguars, Dolphins, and Redskins during the preseason, Tampa Bay managed a Week 3 victory against the Bills in Buffalo.

After a dismal 4-12 season last year, Tampa Bay has completely revamped the franchise, starting with hiring Lovie Smith as their new head coach.  So far, it appears that the Bucs defense has the potential to be solid this season.  On the other side of the ball, they have brought in veteran quarterback Josh McCown, who is coming off of a hot streak from when he replaced an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago; but the offense really seems to be shaky, at best.

Not much is expected out of this team in their first rebuilding year, but they could always surprise.  Their first opportunity to do so will be this Sunday afternoon, when they play host to the Carolina Panthers, who have been a bit shaken up since their failed postseason appearance.

[Current Panthers Rankings: Offense - 27th; Defense - 23rd; Passing - 22nd; Rushing - 26th]

Lagniappe: The Best and the Worst in the NFL

Who currently holds the best and worst ranks in the NFL in each category?


Best
(Current #1 Rank)


Worst
(Current #32 Rank)


Offense

Eagleshelmet_medium
Philadelphia Eagles

Last year: Broncos


49ershelmet_medium
San Francisco 49ers

Last year: Buccaneers

Offense

Defense

Seahawkshelmet_medium
Seattle Seahawks

Last year: Seahawks


Eagleshelmet_medium
Philadelphia Eagles

Last year: Cowboys

Defense

Passing

Eagleshelmet_medium
Philadelphia Eagles

Last year: Broncos



49ershelmet_medium
San Francisco 49ers

Last year: Buccaneers

Passing

Rushing

Ravenshelmet_medium
Baltimore Ravens

Last year: Eagles


Steelershelmet_medium
Pittsburgh Steelers

Last year: Falcons

Rushing

*Note:  Due to the nature of the final preseason games, all preseason rankings were calculated from the results of the first three games of each preseason.