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Saints' troubles could open door for young Bucs, Panthers

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- In the past 60 days, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano's schedule has been understandably hectic, loaded with the responsibilities of a shiny new NFL head coach. You know, things like learning the names of his own players.

So no, Schiano isn't consuming himself with all of the possibilities that exist within his new division in the wake of the dramatic bounty punishments in New Orleans -- even if it might mean far more to him than he cares to know just yet.

"I've got so many things going through my mind," said Schiano when asked specifically about the potential of Bill Parcells winding up in the NFC South as Sean Payton's replacement in New Orleans this year. "I'll wait until things actually happen before I concern myself."

Fair enough. But we'll still go ahead and say it sooner: There isn't another division in football where a setback like this one -- particularly if Parcells doesn't climb on board -- will allow any of the other three teams to make a major surge forward.

The Atlanta Falcons, of course, need no help, one season removed from a division title in 2010. The Bucs and the Carolina Panthers, though, are both seemingly on the mend, anchored by young quarterbacks and trending toward a possible rebirth. Might this mean the parity within the NFC South is on the brink of strengthening?

At this point, because we don't know key factors like the potential punishment of defensive players and whether Parcells will indeed replace Payton, it's tough to predict how bruised the Saints will be. But we're still capable of assessing why the Bucs and Panthers should be able to close the gap regardless.

Tampa Bay, in addition to hiring a new coach, employed the services this offseason of three big names: Wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright. They spent big to provide quarterback Josh Freeman with more weapons (Jackson) and protection (Nicks). And the Bucs will add another vital piece with the No. 5 overall pick in next month's draft.

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Carolina, meanwhile, was less active, instead relying on the expectations that last year's development of Cam Newton and a core of key veterans will bolster the team's overall progress this season. A second year under Ron Rivera should help, as will the few signings (like guard Mike Pollak) that Carolina made this year, along with whomever it selects ninth in the draft.

If the Falcons also see Matt Ryan take another step in his progression, you're talking about a division that's loaded with quality at quarterback -- and we all know how much that can mean to a team.

"It's now the strongest quarterback division in the entire league," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "I think all four quarterbacks are outstanding. Three of the four are young and are going to be great players for a long time."

This isn't to suggest the Panthers or Bucs have made it, nor does it mean they deserve yet to be spoken in the same playoff-contending breath as the Saints. Really, they still need to show they're capable of contending with the Falcons, too.

Reality check: The Panthers and Bucs, collectively, finished 10-22 last year.

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So before we go disrespecting the Saints to the point of belittling what they've accomplished during the past three seasons, it's going to take more than potential from two young teams to totally shift the balance of power. But it's still fair to say, regardless of the past, that Carolina and Tampa Bay have an opportunity to pounce in front of them.

As both teams improve, the Saints are facing a strange and unpredictable year ahead. Will it be enough to close the gap?

"I think what's going to come from this, as we move forward, the team that continues to develop and grow -- the team that doesn't get stagnant -- is going to be the team that ends up on top," Rivera said. "The teams that are able to maintain their development over a period of time are the ones that have success. As a young team, you'd like to think we can maintain that."

They'll soon have a prime opportunity to do just that.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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