Falcons are still the NFC South favorite, but the field is closing in

Just three years ago, the NFC South was one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL.

That year, the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each won at least 10 games, combining for 34 wins.

But just two years later in 2012, the NFC South was one of the least competitive when the Falcons sprinted away from the rest of the pack and claimed the division title by six games.

So dominant were the Falcons that they clinched the crown by the end of November while the other three teams limped home at 7-9.

Even though the Falcons went on to win 13 regular-season games and a divisional playoff game, they came up 10 yards shy of a Super Bowl XLVII berth in the NFC Championship game against San Francisco.

While the Falcons felt the sting for a while, they retooled and are the favorites to win the NFC South for the third time in four seasons. The reason: more motivation than ever after last season’s disappointment, two key free-agent acquisitions in running back Steven Jackson and defensive end Osi Umenyiora and a revamped secondary.

Of course, they had one of the more dangerous offenses in the league with quarterback Matt Ryan putting up huge numbers thanks to wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez.

They did it despite ranking 29th in rushing — which they plan to change with the addition of Jackson, who rushed for 1,000 yards each of the past eight seasons with St. Louis.

Still, everything points to a tighter race for the division title this season. The Saints, Carolina Panthers and Bucs all expect to be improved.

The Saints have coach Sean Payton back after a season-long bounty suspension and a new 3-4 defensive scheme after giving up an NFL single-season record 7,042 yards a year ago.

The Panthers have a potent offense with Cam Newton leading a running game that annually is among the league’s best, and they still have wide receiver Steve Smith.

While the Bucs can use some improved quarterback play from Josh Freeman, their priority during the offseason was shoring up the NFL’s worst defense. They traded for All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis and signed safety Dashon Goldson.