NFL 2017: Falcons NFC South Rivals to challenge for division

Before the Atlanta Falcons can think about Super Bowl redemption, they’ll have to contend with an NFC South Division that could be dangerous to overlook.

A Carolina team that was in the Super Bowl just two seasons ago aims to bounce back from an injury-filled 2016. A young, talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers team looks primed to end a long playoff draught.

And in New Orleans, there is urgency to climb out of a three-year rut of sub-.500 play in what is currently 38-year-old, record-setting quarterback Drew Brees’ last season under contract.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn has gone out of his way to hush any Super Bowl talk — not because he doesn’t want to revisit the pain of his team’s collapse against New England, but because he wants his players focused on what he views as the considerable challenge of staying on top of their division.

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“That’s where the mindset has to be to get where you want to go,” Quinn said. “We know if you would look past these other three (NFC South teams), that would be a mistake, knowing the toughness these three groups play with on well-coached teams.”

For Quinn, a former defensive coordinator for Seattle’s 2013 title team, a key characteristic of the division is exceptional play by quarterbacks with varying strengths. He has his own prolific QB in Matt Ryan, a conventional pocket passer with a 6-foot-4 frame and accurate arm.

The Saints, of course, have benefited from Brees’ extraordinary timing and accuracy for more than a decade, including five 5,000-yard seasons passing (and another with 4,952).

Carolina has a true dual-threat QB in Cam Newton. The Bucs have the up-and-coming Jameis Winston, who prefers to stay behind the line of scrimmage, but has the mobility to escape collapsing pockets and give himself more time to throw.

For Atlanta, re-conquering the division will mean contending with “the uniqueness of what Carolina does, the uniqueness of what New Orleans does, the uniqueness of what Tampa does and the way they feature the players in their systems,” Quinn said.

Brees has been around the NFC South long enough to see how hard it has been to stay on top.

Since the division was created by NFL realignment in 2002, Carolina is the only repeat winner with a three-year run from 2013-15.

“We know that every team in our division is going to be somebody to contend with,” Brees said.

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