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Finding a running game is critical. Matt Forte struggled in his second year, so Chester Taylor was signed as a free agent. His versatility should help, but maturity by Cutler is essential, as well as blending with coordinator Mike Martz.

Detroit Lions

A two-game improvement by the Lions from 2008 to 2009 merely meant they went from no victories to two. They still surrendered 494 points, the most in the NFL by 58, even though their new head coach, Jim Schwartz, has been a defensive wizard as an assistant.

The talent base in Motor City is improving, but don’t expect the Lions to speed their way up the standings. They might move the ball decently as second-year QB Matthew Stafford develops, helped by star WR Calvin Johnson and free agent signee Nate Burleson. Rookie Jahvid Best could be exciting running the ball along with holdover Kevin Smith, but the line is mediocre.

Wisely, Schwartz and GM Martin Mayhew brought in strong leaders in DE Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Jon Jansen. And No. 2 overall pick Ndamukong Suh was the best talent in the draft.

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NFC SOUTH

New Orleans Saints

Coming off a heavenly season, the Saints again will be the NFL’s most dangerous team with the ball. Drew Brees throwing to Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Robert Meachem, Jeremy Shockey, Lance Moore and Reggie Bush makes fans of big-play attacks salivate. Not to mention fantasy footballers. As long as the line stays steady and RB Pierre Thomas is healthy, the 500-point mark is reachable again.

Defensive leader Scott Fujita left the linebacking corps for Cleveland, while DE Charles Grant was released. But key safety Darren Sharper, an All-Pro safety, was re-signed _ he’ll miss six games with a left knee injury _ and LB Jon Vilma, DE Will Smith and CB Tracy Porter are around to keep the Saints respectable on D.

Coach Sean Payton has warned his players about a Super Bowl hangover. If the Saints avoid it _ and they certainly have all the elements to do so _ the only hangovers will be from the partying on Bourbon Street after a steady stream of victories this season.

Atlanta Falcons

For the first time since they entered the league in 1966, the Falcons have had consecutive winning records. The caveat, of course, is they didn’t get to the playoffs with their 9-7 mark last season.

They should do better this time, considering how many injuries hit in 2009. And the Falcons will be formidable because of their offense, which has most of the key parts in QB Matt Ryan, RB Michael Turner, TE Tony Gonzalez, WR Roddy White and a pretty good line that yielded only 27 sacks.

Adding cornerback Dunta Robinson should bolster a problematic secondary. LB Curtis Lofton could be a playmaker, and the Falcons desperately need one on defense.

Story Continues →