Will Von Miller be able to lead the way for the Denver Broncos against the Buffalo Bills?
X-Carolina Panthers 10-6
In 2015, the Carolina Panthers could do no wrong as they went 15-1 to earn their second NFC Championship in franchise history. But as good as 2015 was for the Panthers, 2016 was equally as difficult. The Panthers got off to a 1-5 start and were never able to recover as the team that was finding a way each week to win games in the previous year, was now going out of their way to lose. But in spite of going 6-10 last season, the Panthers appear ready to put all of that behind them and get back to being one of the better teams in the NFC.
It’s very simple for the Panthers as quarterback Cam Newton goes, so does the rest of the team goes. In 2015, Newton was the National Football League’s MVP as he accounted for 45 touchdowns. But last year saw Panthers opponents be able to keep Newton in the pocket more, and he was not as effective. Now as Newton is set to begin his seventh National Football League season, he has another obstacle to overcome. During the off-season Newton underwent shoulder surgery and the jury is still out on whether or not that he’ll be able to have the same zip on his throws.
But even with Newton under center, the Panthers bread and butter on offense is their rushing attack. Carolina made a stride by using their first-round pick in this April’s National Football League Draft on running back Christian McCaffrey. During McCaffrey’s collegiate career with the Stanford Cardinal, he was always a step away from making a big play. As a sophomore in 2015, McCaffrey set a single-season Football Bowl Subdivision record for all-purpose yards with 3,864. McCaffrey is the ultimate home run hitter as aside from being a dynamic runner, he can be a solid pass catcher coming out of the backfield, while also contributing on special teams with punt and kick returns. And Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula should have a field day in regards to finding ways to get McCaffrey the football as much as possible.
At 32-years of age, Panthers tight end Greg Olsen continues to chug along. Olsen is set to begin his seventh season with the Panthers, while he is coming off of his third consecutive campaign in which is he was able to gain at least 1,000 receiving yards. Olsen has also made the Pro Bowl in each of his last three years, while he has also developed into a leader for Carolina. Olsen can still split the seams with the best of them and the presence of McCaffrey should help him out as far as getting more single coverage.
And with McCaffrey on board, Panthers wide receivers Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin should have productive seasons as well as just like Olsen, they should see more single coverage. The Panthers also have a veteran offensive line which includes the Kalil Brothers of center Matt and his younger brother in left tackle Ryan who signed with Carolina this off-season after spending the first five years of his National Football League career with the Minnesota Vikings.
For Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, Steve Wilks has been on his staff since 2012, but now he gets his first chance to be the Carolina’s defensive coordinator and he inherits a veteran unit that is seeking to get back on track. The Panthers were 21st in the National Football League in total defense least year in spite of the fact that they were able to record 47 sacks and generate 27 turnovers.
The Panthers are happy to welcome back a familiar face who is seeking to finish his playing career in Charlotte. In 2002, the Panthers made defensive end Julius Peppers the second overall pick of the draft and he was seen as a building block for the franchise. Peppers spent the first eight years of his National Football League career with the Panthers which included him becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks with 81, while he helped them reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history. And after Peppers split time over the last seven years with the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, he is back now with the Packers to add to his 143.5 career sacks with are the fifth most in NFL history.
The return of Peppers will give the Panthers more depth on their defensive line as he’ll team with defensive ends Charles Johnson and Mario Addison. And as Wilks should be able to rotate his defensive ends more this year, it will give him the opportunity to keep his veteran pass rushers such as Peppers fresh.
Carolina also has one of the best linebacking cores in the National Football League as long as they are able to remain healthy. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is the best at what he does which is evident by him being named the National Football League’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. However several concussions have forced Kuechly to miss time over the last two seasons and this is something that the Panthers medical staff should monitor. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis has spent his entire NFL career with the Panthers, and as he is set to begin his 13th season in Carolina, he is the heart and soul of this team. And then there is case for outside linebacker Shaq Thompson who is entering his third NFL as he is just scratching the surface on his athleticism which will keep him on the field due to his ability to play both the run and pass.
The Panthers secondary still has some question marks as this unit has not yet recovered after the organization parted with cornerback Josh Norman. And because of that the Panthers secondary will be relying on their front seven to generate enough pressure in order to give them the opportunity to make more plays.
The Panthers will enter this season with several “what ifs” which includes seeing how Newton will rebound after having off-season shoulder surgery. But Carolina should be able to benefit from the early portion of their schedule where six of their first eight opponents failed to make the playoffs in 2016. However second half of the season will see Carolina have two meetings with the Atlanta Falcons which should go a long way in decided who’ll win the NFC South.
Atlanta Falcons 9-7
The Atlanta Falcons are set to begin their 52nd year of existence and this could be the toughest one in the history of the franchise. After going 11-5 in the regular season in 2016, the Falcons scored a combined 80 points in two playoff games en route to winning their second NFC Championship in franchise history. The Falcons would then keep that momentum going in the Super Bowl as they built a 28-3 lead in the third quarter over the New England Patriots.
However as the Falcons appeared to be on cruise control to win their first Super Bowl Championship, the wheels began to come off as not only would they not score again, but they allowed the Patriots to storm back, force overtime, and ultimately steal the game. In the process the Falcons became only the third team in Super Bowl history to blow a 10-point lead and lose; however they were the first team to give up a double-digit lead in the second half more/less a 25-point advantage. And after Falcons owner Arthur Blank was on the sideline celebrating an expected victory, how will he and his organization rebound after being so close to football’s holy grail?
Dan Quinn is set to begin his third season as the Falcons head coach, but his staff will look very different heading into the new season. The Falcons will have a new offensive coordinator in Steve Sarkisian who replaces Kyle Shanahan as he moved on to become the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Sarkisian is best known for his respective tenures collegiately as the head football coach of the Washington Huskies and USC Trojans with his only previous venture into the National Football League being as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2004. But now Sarkisian must get up to speed with the Falcons offense.
The Falcons still have quarterback Matt Ryan who enters the campaign as the National Football League’s MVP. Ryan completed nearly 70% of his passes, while he threw for 4,944 yards and 38 touchdowns in 2016. Ryan is the Falcons all-time passer and his career record is 85-57. But what haunts Ryan is the fact that he has been unable to get it done in the postseason. Ryan is 3-5 in the playoffs, but more importantly he has lost twice in January while having home-field advantage, and he’ll now have last season’s collapse in the Super Bowl attached to him. Ryan is still one of the game’s best quarterbacks which will make him a fantasy football owners dream, however the Falcons will need his leadership skills more than ever this season.
Ryan also has the luxury of throwing the football to one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League in Julio Jones. In 2015, Jones led the NFL in receptions with 136 as well as receiving yards with 1,871. And at 6’3″, Jones is one of the most physical pass catchers in the game as he’ll continue to torment defensive backs.
But as good as the combination of Ryan and Jones can be, in order for the Falcons to once again be a force in the NFC, they must focus on rushing the football. Atlanta was fifth in the National Football League in regards to rushing the football. And in the Super Bowl, the Patriots didn’t have an answer for Falcons running back Devonta Freeman who averaged 6.8 yards per carry. However when it mattered the most, the Falcons went away from running the football which would ultimately lead to their demise.
Freeman is a durable ball carrier who is always one step away from making a big play. And although that Freeman has combined to carry the football 492 times over the last two years, he is still a guy that the Falcons need to feature in order to provide balance for their offense as well as taking some of the offensive burden off of Ryan; especially since Atlanta has an experienced offensive line that includes center Alex Mack.
Defensively the Falcons ran out of gas in the fourth quarter versus the Patriots and it showed as they were unable to generate a pass rush. The collapse in the Super Bowl would cost defensive coordinator Richard Smith and defensive line coach Bryan Cox their jobs as three quarters of the way through the game they each appeared to be on their way to getting promotions. Smith has been replaced by Marquand Manuel who after spending eight years as a defensive back in the National Football League, and the last five years as an assistant coach will now have his opportunity to be a play caller.
The Falcons had a solid pass rush in 2016, but they have improved by signing free agent defensive tackle Dontari Poe as well as drafting defensive end Takkarist McKinley. Poe spent the last five years as the anchor on the defensive line of the Kansas City Chiefs. Poe was a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a nose tackle, and now he will team with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett to give Atlanta a stout interior defensive line that should be able to free up rushing lanes for the Falcon linebackers.
After a subpar rookie campaign in 2015, there were some people who felt that outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. would be a bust. In 16 games with the Falcons in 2015, Beasley was only able to record 4 sacks. But when Atlanta allowed Beasley to be an outside linebacker in 2016 as opposed to a defensive end, he was able to flourish which saw him lead the National Football League in sacks with 15.5. It will be tough for Beasley to follow 2016 up with another season like that, however his presence should free up other Falcons pass rushers such as defensive end Courtney Upshaw and McKinley.
The Falcons first three games of the upcoming season will be versus the NFC North which includes an NFC Championship Game rematch in Week 2 at home versus the Green Bay Packers. Weeks 7-9 will see Atlanta have a three-game road trip which includes a Super Bowl rematch versus the Patriots, while they’ll be in Charlotte in Week 9 to face the Carolina Panthers in a meeting that’ll go a long way to determine who will win the NFC South.
The Falcons have talent, but the stench of their heartbreaking Super Bowl loss still sits with this team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 9-7
It’s hard to believe, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one of the longest current playoff droughts in the National Football League. You have to go back to 2007 to find the last time in which the Bucs made the postseason, while they have not won a playoff game since Super Bowl 37 which was in January 2003. Since 2008, the Buccaneers have employed five different head coaches which is a sign of turmoil for any franchise. Dirk Koetter has one year under his belt as the head coach of the Bucs, and in the process he was able to guide Tampa Bay to their first winning season since 2010. However will Koetter be able to do something that hasn’t been done in Western Florida for a long time which is to lead the Buccaneers to the postseason?
A big reason why Koetter was named as the head coach of the Bucs last year was due to his relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston. As a rookie in 2015, Winston passed for 4,042 yards and 22 touchdown passes to be named as the National Football league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year with Koetter as his offensive coordinator. And under the tutelage of Koetter, Winston continued to grow as a quarterback last year as Tampa Bay was on the cusp of making the playoffs. Now as Winston is set to begin his third year in the NFL, he could be on the verge of doing some big things which not only means helping the Buccaneers make the postseason, but his strong arm and emerging leadership could put him in the conversation to be the league’s MVP.
Winston will have a bevy of quality pass catchers to throw the football to which includes wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans as well as tight ends Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard. However Tampa Bay will need more out of their running game that was only 24th in the National Football League last year. Injuries are beginning to take their toll on veteran running back Doug Martin, while he’ll also miss the first three games of the upcoming season after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. However in the past NFL Draft, the Bucs did use a fifth-round pick on running back Jeremy McNichols who should split carries with Jacquizz Rodgers in Tampa’s backfield.
Defensively the Buccaneers were 23rd in the National Football League in total defense last year and they still need to find some semblance of order on that side of the football. And until they do, they are going to continue to rely on Winston and the offense to bail them out.
Three of Tampa Bay’s first five games in 2017 will be against playoff teams from last season which includes home meetings with the New York Giants as well as the New England Patriots who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And as fast start for the young Bucs will be paramount if they are going to end their playoff drought, it won’t be easy.
New Orleans Saints 8-8
Four of the last five years have resulted in the New Orleans Saints failing to make the playoffs, and a big reason for that is their best player. In 2012, quarterback Drew Brees signed a five-year, $100 million deal to remain with the Saints, but in the process he hamstrung the team in regards to maintaining a quality team around him as his deal ate up a ton of salary cap space. And just when it appeared that the Saints were beginning to put it together once again, they traded one of their best players this off-season in wide receiver Brandin Cooks to the New England Patriots. But whereas the combo of Brees, general manager Mickey Loomis, and head coach Sean Payton have meant so much to the Saints for a very long time, will they be able to turn around the fortunes of this franchise and get back to the playoffs?
Brees continues to put up video game like numbers as he has led the National Football League in passing yardage in five of the last six seasons which includes the previous three. Brees is 38-years of age, but he is not showing any signs of slowing down as the Superdome is the perfect spot for him to sling the football around.
As far as not having a quality team around Brees, one thing that has hurt the Saints has been their inability to effectively run the football. 2016 marked the first time since 2006 that New Orleans had a running back gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground, and better things appear to be on the horizon. Since 2007, Adrian Peterson has been the best running back that the National Football has had to offer. Peterson’s 11,747 career rushing yards are the 16th most in NFL history and his 97 rushing touchdowns are tenth. However at the age of 32, the Minnesota Vikings thought that Peterson was done; especially since he was only able to appear in three games last year due to a bum knee.
But Peterson has always been a player who rises to the occasion. And the idea of Peterson playing in the same backfield with Brees, while also being able to split carries with running back Mark Ingram should spark him to give it one more push in regards to winning a Super Bowl Title.
The Saints will undoubtedly miss the contributions of Cooks which means that wide receivers Willie Snead and Michael Thomas will have bigger roles in the offense for New Orleans. However Brees is one of the better quarterbacks in the National Football League in regards to not only spreading the football around, but also making his receivers step up their game.
The Saints are coming off of another bad year on defense in the National Football League as they were 27th in total defense which included them only being able to tally 30 sacks. The Saints also surrendered 30 points on six occasions, and unless play makers such as strong safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive end Cam Jordan can consistently step up, it once again won’t matter if Brees passes for at 5,000 yards if the New Orleans defense cannot stop their opponents from scoring at will.
Three of the Saints first four games will be on the road which includes them beginning the season versus Peterson’s old team in the Vikings. The Saints must find a way to get off to a fast start; especially on defense if they want to make a postseason berth this year a reality.
First-Round Pick: Takkarist McKinley-Outside Linebacker-UCLA
Best Pick: Takkarist McKinley
The sting of the Super Bowl loss is still fresh for the Atlanta Falcons, but nobody is going to feel sorry for them in the National Football League. The Falcons have been attempting to put it all together this off-season in regards to getting back to the Super Bowl and this year’s draft saw them find an impact player early on.
The Falcons traded up in the first round of the draft with the Seattle Seahawks to select UCLA Bruins outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley. We all know about McKinley’s passionate speech that he gave following being drafted, but he plays with that same desire on the football field.
Last year McKinley led UCLA in sacks with 10 and he joins a Falcons team that needs a bookend edge rusher to offset outside linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. who led the National Football League in sacks last year with 15.5.
Other than getting McKinley, the draft process was rather pedestrian for the Falcons. But if McKinley can come in and have a strong impact for the Falcons defense, it will be a big positive.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First-Round Pick: O.J. Howard-Tight End-Alabama
Best Pick: Round Five-Jeremy McNichols-Running Back-Boise State
After barely missing out on making the playoffs last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking to build off of that, and a solid showing at the 2017 National Football League Draft was just what the doctor ordered for them.
In the first round I expected the Buccaneers to focus on either the offensive line or defensive line. However Tampa Bay instead opted to give quarterback Jameis Winston another play maker to get the football to.
The Bucs drafted Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard who over the last two years emerged as a solid pass catching tight end. Howard has the ability to stretch the field from the tight end position and his presence in Tampa will mean less double teams on wide receivers Mike Evans and the recently acquired DeSean Jackson.
It’s too bad that the City of Tampa does not have an NBA franchise due to the fact that some of the Bucs players could suit up for them. The Buccaneers continued to bring more big and physical play makers in the third round of the draft when they selected Penn State Nittany Lions wide receiver Chris Godwin who will give Winston another solid option to get the football to in the red zone.
Tampa Bay has needed a leader on the defensive side of the football for some time now and they may have found one with a compensatory pick in the third round when they selected LSU Tigers middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Beckwith was LSU’s second leading tackler last year with 91, and he will provide the Bucs with knowledge and athleticism.
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht continued to add talent in the fifth round when he selected Boise State Broncos running back Jeremy McNichols. All McNichols did last year was to rush for 1,709 yards and score 23 rushing touchdowns. At 5’9″, McNichols gives the Bucs another undersized running running back to team with Doug Martin in their backfield, and he should be able to have an immediate impact.
The Bucs will enter next season as a trendy pick to make the playoffs and this draft class should be able to provide solid production for them.
New Orleans Saints
First-Round Pick: Marshon Lattimore-Cornerback-Ohio State, Ryan Ramczyk-Offensive Tackle-Wisconsin
Best Pick: Marshon Lattimore
With a pair of first round picks heading into the 2017 National Football League Draft, the New Orleans Saints had a solid chance to upgrade their roster, but unfortunately for the folks on the bayou, they missed the boat.
The Saints need all the help that they can get on the defense as they were 27th in the National Football League last season in total defense, while they were last in the league versus the pass. The Saints would use the 11th overall selection on Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Marshon Lattimore. And although that Lattimore’s arrival in New Orleans does fill a need, the Saints had other pressing issues which they failed to address.
The Saints need players that can rush the quarterback as defensive end Cameron Jordan led the team in sacks last season with just 7.5. The Saints would have been better served drafting Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett who ended up being taken by the Philadelphia Eagles a few spots later.
The selection of Lattimore could have also been used on Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard as Saints quarterback Drew Bress has missed having a reliable go-to-guy in the passing game since tight end Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seattle Seahawks.
And when the run on cornerbacks began later in the first round, the Saints had already selected one as they would use their second pick of the round on Wisconsin Badgers offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk who might be better served playing the right tackle position as opposed to the left.
The Saints would draft a defensive end, but not until their compensatory pick in the third round when they selected Florida Atlantic Owls defensive end Trey Hendrickson. And when it is all said and done, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis will look back and see an opportunity that was missed as in a division with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, New Orleans needs players that can rush the passer and put consistent pressure on these Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks.
First-Round Pick: Christian McCaffrey-Running Back-Stanford
Best Pick: Christian McCaffrey
When the Carolina Panthers went 15-1 during the 2015 National Football League season en route to winning the NFC Championship, they were the bullies of the league. The Panthers were a very physical team on both sides of the football which showed up in their record. But when the Panthers sputtered last season as they went 6-10, they got away from their formula for success which started with a power rushing attack. But hope springs eternal and this off-season the Panthers are getting back to their bread and butter.
I expected the Panthers to select a running back early during the 2017 National Football League Draft, and with LSU Tigers running back Leonard Fournette off of the board, Carolina set their sights on Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey comes to the Panthers as a very talented athlete which included him being named as the Pac-12 Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2015 when he set a Football Bowl Subdivision record with 3,864 all-purpose yards. McCaffrey can do it all as he can be a running back, wide receiver, and kick/punt returner as he should have an immediate impact on the Panthers offense.
The second round saw the Panthers select Ohio State Buckeyes wide receiver Curtis Samuel who has breakout performer written all over him. Samuel led the Buckeyes in receptions (74) and receiving yards (865) last season in an offense that wasn’t pass oriented. And now with Samuel on the receiving end of passes from a former National Football League MVP in Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, along with playing alongside wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, Samuel could be ready to make a big contribution in Charlotte.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman would use the rest of the draft to add depth which included taking Texas A&M Aggies defensive end Daeshon Hall in the third round. And after finishing last in the NFC South in 2016, this draft class could help the Panthers get back to the postseason this year.
There wasn’t that much to criticize the Carolina Panthers on in regards to the 2015 National Football League season as they went 15-1 for the best record in the league. Quarterback Cam Newton was the NFL’s MVP, and the Panthers possessed a defense that was very difficult to score on. Heading into the 2016 NFL season, the Panthers were still expected to be one of the best teams in the NFC, but it was highly unlikely that they’d be able to replicate what they were able to do last year. However the Panthers have dug themselves an early hole that will be difficult to climb out of.
Following the Panthers 17-14 loss at home this past Monday night to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina is now 1-4. The Panthers have faced a tough schedule as three of their four losses have come against teams that are currently leading their respective divisions, but Carolina hasn’t been able to answer the bell.
What made the Panthers so difficult to deal with in 2015 was the fact that they dictated the pace. The Panthers scored first in 10 of their 15 victories which allowed them to dictate the pace in those games. Offensively the Panthers would jump on teams with their powerful rushing attack that was second in the National Football League and hand things over to their opportunistic defense that was known to pin their ears back and stifle opponents. The Panthers were the bullies of the NFL, but ever since they got punched in the mouth by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, they have not been able to find the winning formula that made them so successful last year.
The Panthers issues began in the off-season when team general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded Carolina’s franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman, and voiding contract of veteran strong safety Roman Harper which made them free agents. Norman had 4 of the Panthers 24 interceptions last year and he was the team’s best cover corner. Gettleman took a hard stance with Norman who would go on to sign a five-year, $75 million deal with the Washington Redskins, while Harper would re-join the New Orleans Saints.
Norman’s departure has had a negative impact on the Panthers pass defense which is 17th in the National Football League this season as compared to 11th last year. And in Carolina’s Week 4 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers defense allowed Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to torch them for 503 passing yards, while wide receiver Julio Jones amassed 300 receiving yards as Atlanta won 48-33. To make matters worse, the Panthers would release cornerback Bene Benwikere last week, while also cutting rookie defensive back Zack Sanchez prior to start of the season as these were two players that were initially looked at as far as replacing Norman. Overall the Panthers defense is 14th this season in total defense, but as a team they’ve been unable to rekindle the magic from 2015.
What made the Panthers defense so dominant in 2015 was the fact that they were flying to the football as they personified “gang tackling”. Very rarely was there a situation where one Panthers defender took on a ball carrier as it was a group effort which gave them a psychological edge over their opponents as it also led to a bevy of turnovers. Last season the Panthers defense forced 39 turnovers, while here in 2016 they’ve only produced 7. And it also hasn’t helped the Panthers that their offense has given away the football on 11 occasions this season.
In 2015, Newton couldn’t do any wrong en route to being named as the National Football League’s MVP as he made good decisions in regards to throwing the football and knowing when to scramble. But this year Newton has already thrown 5 interceptions, while he missed Carolina’s game this past Monday night against the Buccaneers after he suffered a concussion against the Falcons. Newton returned to practice yesterday, but his status for this Sunday’s contest against the Saints is still up in the air. The Panthers are still sixth in the NFL this season in rushing, but they have not produced the same level of physicality as they’ve only seen one running back produce a 100-yard game which was Fozzy Whitaker in their Week 2 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The Panthers are a prime example that once you give opposing teams a season’s worth of game film to see your strengths and weaknesses, they will find a way to make what you did last season obsolete. And in spite of the fact that the Panthers didn’t win the Super Bowl, they are still a big game for each of their opponents due to what they were able to accomplish last year, along with the fact that they drew the ire of many of their opponents in 2015 for their penchant to celebrate on scoring plays. This season, teams have been giving the Panthers a dose of their own medicine as they are punching them in the mouth and winning the physical matchup which is evident by their current three-game losing streak.
There is still time for the Panthers to get back on track, but there is little room for error. The Panthers will be on the road this Sunday to face the Saints in a must-win game as they can ill afford to fall to 1-5, and 0-3 within the NFC South. The Falcons are the team to beat so far in the division, and although that they currently have a three-game lead over Carolina in the division, these two rivals are set for another meeting on Christmas Eve.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera knows a thing or two as far as mid-season turnarounds with this team as he got Carolina to the playoffs in 2013 after a 1-3 start, and in 2014 in spite of beginning the year with a record of 3-8-1. The Panthers can lean on their past experience, but the time is now for them to put it into full gear.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
2. New England Patriots
3. Oakland Raiders
4. Indianapolis Colts
5. Cincinnati Bengals
6. Baltimore Ravens
AFC Wild Card Round
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Indianapolis Colts
As dysfunctional as the Cincinnati Bengals are, not even they can lose in the Wild Card round in six consecutive years; especially since they are much better than the Indianapolis Colts.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Oakland Raiders
The fans in the Bay Area have waited a very long time to see an Oakland Raiders playoff game and they wont be disappointed.
AFC Divisional Playoffs
Cincinnati Bengals vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Bengals will finally be happy to get the playoff monkey off of their backs, but their big brothers from the AFC North in the Pittsburgh Steelers want to show them that they are still in charge.
Oakland Raiders vs. New England Patriots
The Raiders are happy to win a playoff game, and the battle tested New England Patriots will be too much for them.
AFC Championship Game
New England Patriots vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been on a mission to put “Deflategate” behind him and get back to the Super Bowl.
1. Seattle Seahawks
2. Green Bay Packers
3. Carolina Panthers
4. Dallas Cowboys
5. Arizona Cardinals
6. Minnesota Vikings
NFC Wild Card Round
Minnesota Vikings vs. Carolina Panthers
The road to a consecutive Super Bowl berth for the Carolina Panthers begins with a home victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Dallas Cowboys
The Arizona Cardinals could be a team on a mission as they steamroll the Dallas Cowboys.
NFC Divisional Playoffs
Carolina Panthers vs. Green Bay Packers
In a battle of MVP quarterbacks in Cam Newton of the Panthers, and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers, the legs of running back Eddie Lacy will lead Green Bay to the NFC Championship Game.
Arizona Cardinals vs. Seattle Seahawks
The Cards-Seahawks rivalry is quickly becoming one of the best in the NFL. And for the Cardinals, they are definitely one team that isn’t afraid to travel to Seattle and seek a victory.
NFC Championship Game
Arizona Cardinals vs. Green Bay Packers
With the frozen mystique of football in Green Bay being a thing of the past, the Cardinals have what it takes to get a victory there and reach the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
Super Bowl Bowl 51-NRG Stadium-Houston, Texas
New England Patriots vs. Arizona Cardinals
These two teams began the year against each other, and it’s only fitting that they’ll finish they year on the gridiron. But the Patriots will find a way to win their fifth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
X-Carolina Panthers 11-5
Last year saw the Carolina Panthers join an elite club as they became just the eighth team in National Football League history to win at least 15 games regular season games. But success in the regular season doesn’t always translate to the playoffs as the Panthers lost Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos. And in the process the Panthers showed how hard that it is to keep it going in the postseason as only the 1984 San Francisco 49ers and 1985 Chicago Bears are the only teams in NFL history to win at least 15 regular season games that were able to see it materialize into a Super Bowl Championship. The Panthers had their way in 2015 as their stout defense and powerful running game simply bullied opponents. However in 2016, teams will be gunning for the Panthers in spite of the fact that they were unable to win it all, and it will be interesting to see how they’ll respond.
Cam Newton will enter the 2016 National Football League season as the reigning MVP of the league. At the age of 27, Newton has put it all together as he now has the pocket presence that is needed to compliment his supreme athleticism. But Newton cannot do it all by himself as he needs help in the passing game.
As a rookie in 2014, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin became a very dependable pass catcher for Newton. Benjamin had 73 receptions for 1,008 yards and 9 touchdowns, but on the first day of Panthers training camp in 2015, Benjamin suffered an ACL injury. The Panthers were able to make it to the Super Bowl without Benjamin, but they missed his presence in the Super Bowl where the Broncos took away their power rushing attack.
The Panthers still have tight end Greg Olsen who gained 1,104 receiving last year which was a career high. And although that Olsen is entering his tenth National Football League season, he is still an effective option for Newton in the passing game.
The Panthers were second in the National Football League last season in rushing, but surprisingly they didn’t have one player gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground. Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart is coming off of a career high in carries with 242 and after eight years in the NFL, you have to wonder if he can still take the pounding.
Carolina has one of the better centers in football in Ryan Kalil who will anchor an offensive line that has the cohesion necessary to keep Newton clean in the pocket.
Last year the Panthers were sixth in the National Football League in total defense as they were a very stingy group. Eight Carolina opponents were held under 20 points, while their defense feasted off of turnovers as they were plus-20 in the turnover category.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL as he has tremendous lateral movement, while he also has the ability to tackle anything that moves. Led by defensive end Kawann Short and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, the Panthers have a defensive line that will get after opponents as this front seven is relentless.
Carolina could have some issues in the secondary as they released cornerback Josh Norman after a contract dispute, while also parting ways with veteran strong safety Roman Harper. And more than ever the Panthers secondary will rely on the front seven of the defense to carry them.
For Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, he has a team that is very capable of making it back to the Super Bowl, but every team in the NFC will be gunning for them; especially with the brash bravado of Newton.
Atlanta Falcons 10-6
As the 2016 National Football League season is getting set to start, the term “finish” will be thrown around in regards to the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons began 2015 with a record of 6-1 as they appeared to be a lock to make the postseason. But unfortunately for the Falcons, the wheels fell off as they would lose their next six games. The Falcons were able to recover to finish 8-8, however for head coach Dan Quinn, he is seeking to get Atlanta back to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 in this their final year at the Georgia Dome.
In eight years as the starting quarterback of the Falcons, Matt Ryan has quietly gone about his job. Ryan has a career record of 74-52, while he is also the Falcons all-time leader in passing yards (32,757) and touchdowns (202). But with a playoff record of 1-4 with two of those losses coming at home when Atlanta had home-field advantage, Ryan has been pushed aside as fairly or unfairly, quarterbacks in the National Football League are firstly judged by playoff wins and championships.
However Ryan can still get the job done at the age of 31 as he is one of the most accurate quarterbacks in football. Ryan also has the luxury of throwing the football to one of the most dynamic wide receivers in the National Football League in Julio Jones. Last year saw Jones lead the NFL in receptions (136), and receiving yards (1,871). At 6’4″, 220 lbs., Jones can make it look very easy at times due to his size, strength, and freakish speed which will keep in the conversation in regards to being an All-Pro.
After being a role player for the last four years with the Cincinnati Bengals, wide receiver Mohammed Sanu signed with the Falcons this off-season as a free agent. Sanu is not a Pro Bowl caliber wide receiver, but what he possesses is enough ability to keep opposing defenses honest in regards to their coverage on Jones.
The Falcons also enjoy balance on offense due to the contributions of running Devonta Freeman. Last year Freeman gained 1,061 on the ground, while also doing a solid job in pass protection and catching passes out of the backfield for Ryan. Freeman made the Pro Bowl last year and he could be ready to become one of the best all-purpose backs in the National Football League.
The Falcons have a veteran offensive line that should be improved with the addition of center Alex Mack. Mack spent the first seven years of his National Football League career with the Cleveland Browns where he was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. But now Mack is looking to be a part of a winner and he has a shot to make the playoffs for the first time in his career with the Falcons.
2015 was a disappointing rookie campaign for outside linebacker Vic Beasley who was Atlanta’s first-round pick, but the additions of outside linebackers Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw should take some of the pressure off of him as Atlanta looks to move up in the defensive rankings after being 16th in the National Football League last year in total defense.
The NFC South Championship should come down to the Falcons and Carolina Panthers who are the defending champs. And the Week 4 and Week 16 showdowns between these two clubs will go a very long way in deciding who’ll win the division here in 2016.
New Orleans Saints 8-8
Three of the last four National Football League seasons have seen the New Orleans Saints fall short of making the postseason as this is an organization that is attempting to hold on. The Saints issues began when they gave quarterback Drew Brees a five-year deal that was worth $100 million in 2012 which has hamstrung the front office as they’ve been unable to put quality players around him. But the Saints could be ready for a breakthrough here in 2016.
At the age of 37, Brees is still one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League and the Saints indoor home of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is perfect for him. Brees has four, 5000-yard passing seasons to his credit as when the Saints offense is clicking, it it the equivalent for fast break basketball.
Speed is the name of the game with the Saints wide receivers in Brandon Cooks and Wille Snead. But the biggest issue that has held the New Orleans offense back in recent years has been their lack of a consistent running game. The Saints were 24th in the National Football League last season in rushing and you have to go all the way back to 2006 to find the last time that a New Orleans running back gained 1,000 yards on the ground.
As Dennis Allen is set to begin his first full year as the Saints defensive coordinator after he took over for fired Rob Ryan midway through last season, there is only one direction to go which is up. Last year the Saints were 31st in the National Football League in total defense as they allowed 413.8 yards against them per game which also saw four New Orleans opponents tally at least 39 points on them.
But as much as the Saints struggled on defense, they do have play makers in defensive end Cameron Jordan, middle linebacker Stephone Anthony, and cornerback Delvin Breaux. However New Orleans must find a way to get off of the field on third down as they were 22nd in the National Football League in opponents third down conversions last season.
For Saints head coach Sean Payton, his team’s first four opponents failed to make the postseason last year and they will need a hot start in 2016 as they look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-11
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into the 2016 National Football League in a very familiar spot as they are once again starting over. The Buccaneers were making strides last year under head coach Lovie Smith. But after Smith declined to make changes to his staff, Bucs general manager Jason Licht decided to make him walk the plank. Smith was replaced by Dirk Koetter who served on his staff last year as the Buccaneers offensive coordinator. The hire of Koetter as the Buccaneers head coach marks the fourth different head coach in the last six years, and it is no wonder why this organization has not made the postseason since 2007. But the reason why Licht decided to go with Koetter is due to his relationship with quarterback Jameis Winston.
With Koetter as Winston’s offensive coordinator last year, he was named as the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year as he passed for 4,042 yards while throwing 22 touchdowns. Winston has the talent to be a superstar in the NFL, and it will be interesting to see how much that he’ll grow in this his sophomore campaign under Koetter.
Last year the Bucs were fifth in the National Football League in total offense, but there were six games in which they scored less than 20 points which comes down to their execution in the red zone. The Buccaneers have big wide receivers in Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson that should be able to win most jump ball situations in the red zone. Running back Doug Martin gained more than 1,400 yards on the ground, but like the passing attack in Tampa, he struggled in the red zone as he only managed to get 6 rushing touchdowns.
Like the offense in Tampa Bay in 2015, the defense was also a top ten unit, but what hurt them the most was that they were minus-5 in the turnover category. The Buccaneers do have play makers in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, but somebody must step up and become a consistent under first year defensive coordinator Mike Smith.
The schedule makers didn’t do the Bucs any favors here in 2016 as they will be running the gauntlet out of the chute with road games against the Atlanta Falcons and Arizona Cardinals, along with games against the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos who were the two participants in the Super Bowl this past January.