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NFC South...destined for a tie?

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Could two teams finish atop the division with identical records?

NFL: NOV 22 Falcons at Saints Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Despite last-minute roster shifts or contract extensions, NFL teams are what they are going to be come Week 1 of the 2019 regular season. At this point, we know who the New Orleans Saints are. They are a team that was one call away from appearing in a Super Bowl last year with largely the entire roster returning for another run this season.

It should be no surprise then that the latest win-loss predictions from Bleacher Report have the Saints atop the division at 11-5, a two game drop-off from 2018’s 13-3 record. What might come as a surprise is the Atlanta Falcons, who finished 2018 at 7-9, are predicted for the exact same 11-5 record.

Quarterback Drew Brees’ passing attempts have declined over the last two seasons, but he’s still accurate, completing an NFL-record 74.4 percent of his throws last year. The Saints added a notable perimeter playmaker and help in the backfield during the offseason, signing tight end Jared Cook and running back Latavius Murray.

At 6’5”, 254 pounds, Cook should serve as a viable target in short-yardage passing situations and inside the 20-yard line. Only wideout Michael Thomas registered more than five receiving touchdowns for this squad last year. Murray will replace Mark Ingram II, who departed to Baltimore.

The Saints’ offensive acquisitions, along with key playmakers Thomas and running back Alvin Kamara, should keep defenses on edge.

The secondary may show improvement with a first-year defensive back turning heads following an impressive spring. According to ESPN’s Mike Triplett, C.J. Gardner-Johnson has already caught the coaching staff’s attention.

”The rookie fourth-round pick has made a quick impression this spring,” Triplett wrote. “Not only has he made a few flash plays in both rookie camp and OTAs, but the Saints clearly like his versatility as both a safety and slot corner in the nickel.”

Gardner-Johnson showed the tendency to force turnovers at Florida, logging nine interceptions in three seasons. He could become a standout contributor in the upcoming year.

On the flip side, the Saints run defense and pass rush will take a temporary hit while defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins recovers from a torn Achilles. Defensive end Marcus Davenport must make a significant sophomore leap to help Cameron Jordan apply pocket pressure.

The Falcons, though...

Aside from the injuries on defense, the Atlanta Falcons also struggled in the trenches last season; the offensive line ranked 24th in adjusted line yards (4.08) and 14th in pass protection, per Football Outsiders.

The front office selected two offensive linemen in the first round of this year’s draft, Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, in addition to signing guards Jamon Brown and James Carpenter.

If McGary misses significant time after undergoing a heart procedure, Ty Sambrailo will lock down the starting right tackle spot.

In 2018, Atlanta fielded the No. 4 passing attack and the 27th-ranked ground game. The Falcons should have the manpower to clear lanes for a healthy Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith to balance their offense.

Defensive end Vic Beasley’s disappointing two-year stretch after leading the league in sacks three years ago causes some concern, but Takkarist McKinley and Grady Jarrett should give the front line a push up front. The coaching staff’s decision to move Damontae Kazee into the nickelback spot following his eight-interception campaign will patch up coverage holes on the back end.

The Falcons have enough offensive firepower to outscore the New Orleans Saints within the division and just enough defensive playmakers who can make critical stops in big games.

The Saints will definitely have their hands full in 2019 if they’re looking to repeat as back-to-back-to-back NFC South champs. Bleacher Report predicts the Carolina Panthers to finish at 8-8 in third and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to lag behind everyone at 5-11.

The 11-5 record predicted for both the Saints and the Falcons is the same record predicted for the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles, so the top of the NFC could be loaded.