Schein 9: Watch out for Falcons

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Sean Payton made the gutsiest call in sports history in a big game.

Drew Brees is a star and put on an epic display.

Tracy Porter picked off Peyton Manning to clinch the Super Bowl for Who Dat nation and kick start an unprecedented party for the deserving Saints fans.

That's old news.

The Saints' first Super Bowl was no accident. The Saints' brilliant general manager, Mickey Loomis, put together a fantastic roster, dominating the draft with sleepers (Marques Colston and Jahri Evans) and budding stars (Will Smith, Porter, Roman Harper), trading for key players (Jon Vilma and Jeremy Shockey) and finding free-agent gems, ranging from Brees to the undrafted Pierre Thomas to the 2009 steals of Darren Sharper and Jabari Greer. And Loomis had the guts to change kickers midstream. How clutch was Garrett Hartley in the Super Bowl with three field goals over 40 yards!

Plus the appointment of Gregg Williams was as big a move as any last offseason.

So let's dive into the crystal ball and rank the nine non-playoff teams who could be the Saints of 2010, going from the outside to the title.

Let's bring it, Schein 9 style ...

1. Falcons

It sounds backward, but I've never been so impressed with a team that made the playoffs only to miss it the year after. Preseason, I picked Atlanta to go 9-7 and fall just short. But Falcons fans have a lot to look forward to.

Sure, Matt Ryan took a bit of a step back this year from his extraordinary rookie season. But Ryan is a winner and a true leader. He played hurt down the stretch of the season, knowing the importance of the Falcons' going above .500 in back-to-back years for the first time in franchise history. His effort and the team's getting there were truly impressive. I think "Matty Ice" takes a gigantic step forward in 2010.

Plus, Michael Turner was hurt all year. He's still a top back when healthy. Tony Gonzalez has shown no signs of slowing down. Roddy White is a star. The offensive line is underrated.

The concern is on defense. The Falcons defense is a bit weak on every level, though I do like the upside of their young linebackers. But I fully trust Thomas Dimitroff to address it in the offseason. And first-round pick Peria Jerry should be back after not playing a down this year. That will greatly help the run defense.

Mike Smith has won at least nine games in each of his first two years as a coach. It's very impressive. He is intense, and his players love playing for him. And Atlanta is excellent at home under Smith.

Don't be surprised when the Falcons make a run at the trophy next season.

2. Texans

Go ahead and call me a sucker, but Houston did finally win nine games for the first time in franchise history. And yes, though in preseason I picked them to win 10 and the division, this represents progress.

Actually, if you look at it, there are a lot of similarities between the 2008 Saints and the 2009 Texans. The quarterbacks put up eye-popping numbers, but it wasn't enough to overcome deficiencies on defense or late-game follies. But like the Saints, I think the Texans will grow late in games.

Matt Schaub is a great player. Andre Johnson is a stud. Steve Slaton had neck surgery, and you have to believe he will come back and play like he did in 2008. The key is to keep DeMeco Ryans and Dunta Robinson around. Brian Cushing really added attitude and consistency to the defense.

Bob McNair rewarded Gary Kubiak with a surprising contract extension, hoping consistency and faith in the plan pays off.

If the team adds some depth in the secondary, count me in.

3. Steelers

For the record, I'm really down on this team, losers to some of the NFL's worst this season. I don't like the special teams, the secondary, the age on the defensive line or the running attack.

But they employ Ben Roethlisberger. A top four quarterback in the NFL puts you in the mix.

4. Giants

I know the Giants embarrassed themselves in the final two weeks. And they need help at safety and linebacker. They need youth and depth on the offensive line. They need Osi to get a clue and Brandon Jacobs to get healthy and focused.

But like the Saints last offseason, the Giants changed defensive coordinators. Perry Fewell represents a major upgrade over the overmatched Bill Sheridan. Fewell will restore the pass rush. And he needs budding star Kenny Phillips to regain his form after major surgery.

The Giants have a top 10 quarterback and a coach who has won the big one. Even with the competition in the division, the Giants, who looked like a Super Bowl favorite in the first five weeks, can bounce back.

5. 49ers

Do you realize the Niners went 8-8? With all of the chaos and drama of the Michael Crabtree situation and the mediocre play at quarterback, San Francisco was able to win half of its games.

I am totally into this team. I believe Alex Smith can get better. He is committed to improving his craft. Frank Gore's presence eases the burden. Crabtree showed his worth in a short time and will greatly benefit from a full year. Mike Singletary's defense is strong. Is it too early to pick linebacker Patrick Willis as the Defensive Player of the Year next season?

General manager Scot McCloughan is always active. San Fran has a couple of picks in the upcoming draft. He will add an impact defensive player and offensive line help. Watch out for the Niners after a strong offseason.

6. Dolphins

We interrupt this Jets vs. Patriots debate to mention the Miami Dolphins. Miami is so prepared and well-coached under Tony Sparano.

And the team got better with the offseason coup in plucking the outstanding Mike Nolan to run the defense, replacing former Syracuse University failure Paul Pasqualoni, who was rightly canned after the season. Nolan was nothing short of brilliant in Denver, and Josh McDaniels will regret the day he let Nolan walk. All Nolan did was turn around a pathetic defense from 2008 under different leadership. Nolan's appointment could be the equivalent of the Saints' hiring Gregg Williams.

Miami's run game is one of the best in pro football. Chad Henne has all the tools.

Jeff Ireland needs to beef up the receiver position.

I won't be surprised to see Miami win 10 games next season and run its way deep into the playoffs.

7. Titans

Here's what I have learned. I will never pick the Titans to make the playoffs. But when you have Jeff Fisher as your coach and you have a stud weapon like Chris Johnson, there is always a chance to win nine games and make a run.

8. Bears

Desperate times call for desperate measures. With nobody wanting to coach the Chicago offense, enter the overrated Mike Martz, who doesn't believe in running the ball.

But I just can't believe Jay Cutler is THAT bad. And as bad as Martz is when it comes to balance, he does maximize quarterbacks. Cutler has incredible talent. And assuming Martz knows who he is, Matt Forte will bounce back. Forte was hurt all season.

The return of Brian Urlacher will be huge.

Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo are both on the hot seat. Look for a few new receivers, offensive linemen and defensive backs to help the cause.

Even with a wacky month of January, don't be surprised to see the Bears actually playing in January next year. I still believe in Cutler.

9. Panthers

Can you get to the Super Bowl with Matt Moore? I won't pretend to know that answer. But I do know he played great down the stretch, and he's better than Jake Delhomme.

And the core that was a missed field goal away from being the 1 seed in the NFC two years ago still remains. The running attack is thunderous and keeps Carolina in the conversation.

And since Julius Peppers doesn't always bring his "A" game, it's OK to lose him.

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