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Answering hard questions (cont.)

Posted: Friday September 1, 2006 1:31PM; Updated: Saturday September 2, 2006 12:24AM
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NFC South

Reggie Bush averaged 5.4 yards per carry during the preseason and caught 10 passes.
Reggie Bush averaged 5.4 yards per carry during the preseason and caught 10 passes.
Simon Bruty/SI

Key question: Will Reggie Bush be the salvation of the Saints?

Answer: It's a little much to put the fate of an entire franchise -- and maybe the revival of its storm-battered community -- on the shoulders of a rookie running back. But if nothing else, Bush has restored relevance to Saints football and given us a reason to follow the reconstruction project underway in Louisiana. We'll be surprised if he's not the most electrifying rookie in recent NFL history.

1. Carolina (11-5): Every NFL team has holes. The Panthers just have fewer than anyone else in the NFC. With a deeper running-back depth chart, more help for receiver Steve Smith and an improved run defense, Carolina has Miami on its mind.

2. Atlanta (9-7): The Falcons have once again lowered our expectation level, which is usually when they kick it up a notch and make us take notice.

3. Tampa Bay (8-8): Did the Bucs let their surprising 2005 division title lull them into a status-quo offseason? In a tough neighborhood like the NFC South, staying the course can be akin to falling behind.

4. New Orleans (5-11): The Saints will be a better story than team in 2006, but after the endless road trip that was last year, New Orleans at least has a home to call its own again.

NFC West

Key question: Will Edgerrin James provide Arizona with the edge it needs to end the league's longest active playoff-season drought?

Answer: The Cardinals' running game is better off with James, but then again, it couldn't be any worse than last year's 32nd-ranked rushing attack. For Arizona to make it to the postseason for the first time since 1998, the offensive line has to give James a running start at lifting the Cardinals' ground game into the league's middle third. The pressure is on Arizona's young defense, too. It's time for all that potential to turn into production.

1. Seattle (11-5): Say goodbye to the Super Bowl loser syndrome. Not only will the Seahawks return to the playoffs after losing the Big Game last February, they'll do so with ease in the NFL's weakest division.

2. Arizona (8-8): It's ironic that on both offense and defense, so much of the Big Red's problems are attributable to its lack of execution in the red zone. Improvement there will deliver respectability to the desert.

3. St. Louis (7-9): With at least six new starters on defense and Jim Haslett on hand to coordinate that side of the ball, the Rams should finally be a more balanced team. A commitment to the run is another novel approach in St. Louis.

4. San Francisco (5-11): When you've won a combined six games in the past two seasons, a five-win season passes for progress. The 49ers are still in the formative stages of their talent-acquisition phase.