It would be crazy to think the Panthers will flirt with another undefeated season as they did a year ago in going 15-1. It would be crazier to think they will lose more than four games with the bulk of the team that won the NFC Championship back. The overall schedule is harder with rematches against each of their three playoff opponents (Seattle, Arizona, Denver) and a franchise-record five prime-time games. But the rest of the NFC South remains in a rebuilding mode, so a fourth consecutive division title seems in order.
But how will Carolina handle being the hunted rather than the hunter?
I think the Panthers will still have a good defense despite losing Josh Norman to the Redskins. They will still have Jonathan Stewart running the ball and now they get their best wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back healthy. Cam Newton will have two big wide receivers in Benjamin and Funchess, who needs to have a bigger role in the offense this season. Carolina still has one of the top tight ends in the game in Greg Olsen, so there are definitely more opportunities on offense in 2016.
O-line play got ripped to shreds by Von Miller in the Super Bowl. There’s no doubt the Panthers’ front seven must do a better job protecting their franchise quarterback. If there was one criticism of Newton, it would be his accuracy. If Newton can improve consistently with his accuracy, knowing what he can do with his legs, defenses are going to have an even harder time stopping him. Carolina should win this division, but they need to watch out for the young Bucs of Tampa.
I think the second best team in this division is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have a rising star in the making at quarterback and a solid run game with Doug Martin, However, the O-line struggled last year protecting Winston, their defense was below average, and is Dirk Koetter ready to be a head coach? Those question marks need to be ironed out before I am ready to call the Bucs “playoff ready.” That is not to say they won’t be a team to look out for, but I think they are another year away from being a legitimate threat.
The NFL didn’t do the Bucs any favors with a tough start with back-to-back road games at Atlanta and Arizona, a home game against defending Super Bowl champion Denver, and a Monday night game at Carolina in the first five weeks of the season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Bucs go 1-4 during that stretch. The Bucs also have two West Coast trips (San Francisco and San Diego) and play host to Seattle the week before leaving for San Diego. They should have a good run in December before the season finale against Carolina. That run will help Tampa reach a .500 record for a seemingly successful season.
Speaking of non-playoff teams, the Falcons lost their wings, crashing out of the postseason in 2015 after a 6-1 start. Maybe it is time for Matt Ryan to go somewhere else and get a fresh start. The Atlanta Falcons haven’t done anything since reaching the NFC title game in 2012 and I don’t expect that to change in 2016 – but more so because of their brutal schedule. Maybe Devonta Freeman isn’t the every-down back the Falcons hoped he was, since he vanished after a great seven-game stretch. We’ll see if that downfall lingers over to this season.
I don’t see the Falcons overcoming a brutal schedule that is tied with the 49ers for the toughest in the league, based on last year’s records. Playing two of the past three Super Bowls champions, Denver and Seattle, in consecutive road games during Weeks 5 and 6 is a tough task in itself and a lot to ask of a team still trying to find its identity. Throw in facing Carolina at home before those two road contests makes for murderer’s row and possibly a three-game losing streak (or longer). At least fans can get hyped up about the final game at the Georgia Dome being against the rival Saints in Week 17. The Falcons will move into the $1.4 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in 2017.
The Saints would be a mess if it weren’t for Drew Brees and Sean Payton. They lose tight end Benjamin Watson and they still didn’t do much to improve the defense. I think this could be a long year for the Saints even though they won’t be terrible because of Brees – but they are not a playoff team.
As long as they have Drew Brees, the Saints are capable of winning any game on the schedule. 10 wins wouldn’t shock me but it’s hard to project anything better than .500 after the inconsistency they’ve shown in back-to-back 7-9 seasons, especially with the fourth toughest strength of schedule in the NFL.