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NFL 2014: Panthers look to become 1st team to repeat in NFC South; Saints, Falcons in way

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers will need to rewrite history if they hope to repeat as NFC South champions this season.

It won't be easy.

No team has won back-to-back NFC South division titles since the league realigned in 2002. The Panthers are in a division stacked with formidable foes — not to mention tremendously talented quarterbacks — in Atlanta and New Orleans. And Tampa Bay is considered a dark horse under new coach Lovie Smith.

The Saints and Falcons have grabbed headlines with their off-season upgrades, while the salary cap-strapped Panthers have released star wide receiver Steve Smith, saw veteran left tackle Jordan Gross retire, and lost a handful of key free agents.

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis views the past as a plus.

"A lot of people are ruling us out right now based on the history of the division — and that's OK with us," said Davis, entering his 10th season with the Panthers. "We do our best work when we're not expected to do anything. We're not going to do a bunch of trash talk, we're just going to go out and show it."

Carolina boasts the league's No. 2 defence led by middle linebacker and Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly. However, questions remain about an offence that lost four linemen to retirement, and its top four receivers.

But the Panthers aren't the only team with concerns.

The Saints are worried about a leaky, injury-plagued secondary. The Falcons have concerns about protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and replacing his favourite red zone target, Tony Gonzalez. And the Bucs are banking on 35-year-old journeyman quarterback Josh McCown to boost their offence.

"I think the South is the most competitive division in the entire NFL," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Smith points to Drew Brees in New Orleans, Newton in Carolina and Ryan in Atlanta as three big reasons why.

"We have a division that has three outstanding quarterbacks, and this is a quarterback-driven league," Smith said. "They've all been to the Pro Bowl in the last three or four years."

The NFC South has been remarkably balanced since 2002, with each team winning three division titles.

"We want to take the lead," Davis said.

Some things to watch in the NFC South:

SUSPECT SECONDARY: The Saints spent money upgrading their secondary, though it's unclear how those moves will pan out. New Orleans brought in three-time Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. Byrd had off-season back surgery and has been limited during training camp, while the 36-year-old Bailey went down with an unspecified leg injury early in camp and remains limited. Cornerback Patrick Robinson, a 2012 first-round pick whose comeback from knee surgery showed promise early in camp, has been battling an undisclosed leg injury.

PROTECTING RYAN: The offensive line was a concern even before left tackle Sam Baker was lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. First-round pick Jake Matthews moved from right to left tackle and Lamar Holmes, who made 15 starts as a rookie in 2013, will battle with Gabe Carimi at right tackle. The line already had a new look with both Matthews and free-agent addition right Jon Asamoah moving in as new starters. Ryan was sacked a career-high 44 times and was pressured 203 times, most in the NFL in 2013. The Falcons ranked last in rushing.

RECEIVERS NEEDED: The Panthers lost their top four wide receivers from last year including Smith, the franchise's all-time leader in receptions and touchdowns. They couldn't afford to keep free agents Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. NFL Coach of the Year Ron Rivera expects first-round draft pick Kelvin Benjamin, who has earned a starting spot, to emerge as the No. 1 receiver and work alongside veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant.

PASS HAPPY: At 35, Brees recently gave ulcers to opposing NFC South coaches saying he feels healthy enough to play another 10 years. He's thrown for more 5,000 yards and no fewer than 39 touchdowns in three straight seasons. He'll be aiming to reach such numbers again with the help of star tight end Jimmy Graham, Saints all-time leading receiver Marques Colston, and first-round draft choice Brandin Cooks.

MCCOWN FACTOR: The Bucs were 30th in scoring and last in passing in 2013. Smith is banking on career backup QB McCown being a big part of the solution. The 35-year-old is coming off his best season, throwing for 13 touchdowns and one interception while going 3-2 as a starter as a fill-in for an injured Jay Cutler in Chicago.

Predicted order of finish: Saints; Falcons; Panthers; Buccaneers.

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AP Sports Writers Charles Odum, Paul Newberry, Brett Martel and Fred Goodall contributed to this story.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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