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Bucs may buck playoff trend

The Buccaneers could use some good news after a 3-13 season, and here's some:

Every year since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002, the team that finished last in the NFC South made the playoffs the following year. In that sense, there's hope.

Now, the bad news for the Bucs: Things aren't getting any easier in the division.

The Saints are coming off their first Super Bowl victory and have one of the league's elite quarterbacks in Drew Brees.

The Falcons patched a hole in their secondary by signing cornerback Dunta Robinson, among the top free agents this offseason.

The Panthers, who finally have turned the page and parted ways with Jake Delhomme, have a superb running back tandem and look to be on the upswing.

So the path from cellar to stellar is anything but clear for the Buccaneers, who have a second-year coach and quarterback and are relying on a pair of rookies to revitalize their once-spectacular defensive line.

This could be the year that the division's trend comes to a close.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints were able to sneak up on people last season, but how will they handle success? In 2007, coming off their first appearance in the NFC championship game, they finished 7-9. The Saints' offense can score like crazy, but will their vulnerable defense be able to feast on big plays and turnovers the way it did last season?

•ROOKIES AND VETERANS: Thursday in Metairie, La.

Atlanta Falcons

Quarterback Matt Ryan cooled a bit last year after his sizzling rookie season. Is he one of the league's elite passers? How much will marquee cornerback Dunta Robinson improve a secondary that was victimized last season? Will defensive tackle Peria Jerry, a first-rounder in 2009, finally be healthy enough to contribute?

•ROOKIES AND VETERANS: Thursday in Flowery Branch, Ga.

Carolina Panthers

Now that Jake Delhomme is gone, which Southern California kid will win the QB battle: Matt Moore or rookie Jimmy Clausen? Will either have a healthy (and capable) receiver to target? Is there a better running back tandem in the league than Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams?

•ROOKIES AND VETERANS: Thursday in Spartanburg, S.C.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Will the Bucs' draft investment in defensive tackles — first-rounder Gerald McCoy, second-rounder Brian Price — pay big dividends? Can Mike Williams, the rookie receiver from Syracuse, be a top target for Josh Freeman? How much help will Freeman get from the running-

back trio of Cadillac Williams, Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward?

•ROOKIES AND VETERANS: Friday in Tampa, Fla.

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