The Saints, at 3-13, had the worst record in the NFC last season and they earned every bit of it. But there's hope this year after the franchise's purgatory-like existence in 2005.
The prize of the draft, Heisman Trophy-winning running back Reggie Bush, tumbled to them at No. 2. Quarterback Drew Brees arrived during free agency on the heels of the two best seasons of his career, and first-time head coach Sean Payton brings a renewed sense of possibility and a track record of offensive acumen. Even the bedraggled Superdome is on its way back, with a new roof and a new lease on its post-Katrina life.
No one should make the mistake of assuming the Saints are ready to compete for a playoff spot in the rugged NFC South, where Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta all have postseason aspirations. There are too many holes remaining on defense and not enough talent on the offensive line. But like the city of New Orleans, the Saints are on the rise after hitting absolute rock bottom in every way last year.
Team in transition
Figuring out which direction the Falcons are headed is never easy. The franchise has yet to have consecutive winning seasons in its 40 years of existence, and when last year's 7-4 beginning gave way to four losses in the season's last five weeks, the Falcons again wore the label of confounding underachievers.
To be sure, there's talent galore on Atlanta's roster. The running game is stout, the defensive line has a chance to be special with the acquisition of pass rusher John Abraham, and the team's glaring weakness at safety has been addressed. And then there's Number 7, quarterback Michael Vick, who can both take over a game and find ways to give it away, sometimes on the same afternoon. But until Atlanta discovers the secret of consistency and learns how to play up to its potential on most game days, it will remain a perplexing and maddening team to watch.
Coach in the spotlight
JIM MORA, ATLANTA
Carolina's John Fox and Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden did some of their best work last year, and produced 11-win, playoff-qualifying seasons in the process. And Payton is just beginning his honeymoon with the rebuilding Saints. That leaves Mora as the NFC South coach who will start 2006 under the microscope, with last year's 8-8 finish leaving a bitter taste after his acclaimed debut in 2004, when he led the Falcons to an 11-5 record and a berth in the conference title game.
Mora's intensity is his calling card, but at times it was either misdirected or became a distraction in 2005, leading even Falcons owner Arthur Blank to remind his head coach that the face of the organization can't be an angry one. With one success story and one disappointment under Mora's belt, this should be the year we find out what kind of stuff he is made of.