The New England Patriots can see the finish line in regards to getting home-field advantage in the playoffs.
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The Panthers issues began in the off-season when team general manager Dave Gettleman rescinded Carolina’s franchise tag on cornerback Josh Norman, and voiding contract of veteran strong safety Roman Harper which made them free agents.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.
First Round Pick: Vernon Butler-Defensive Tackle-Louisiana Tech
Best Pick: Round Five-Zack Sanchez-Cornerback-Oklahoma
Even though that the Carolina Panthers went 15-1 in 2015 en route to winning the NFC Championship, they were a flawed team. The Panthers relied on their running game and a strong defense, but it wasn’t enough for them to win the Super Bowl. And after losing Super Bowl 50 to the Denver Broncos, it was clear that the Panthers had issues on the offensive line and in the passing game. But at the 2016 National Football League Draft, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman missed an opportunity to remedy that.
Instead Gettleman opted to use the Panthers first-round choice on Louisiana Tech Bulldogs defensive tackle Vernon Butler. The Panthers had a stout defensive line last season and Butler will be a welcome sight to their rotation as head coach Ron Rivera would like to have a wave of fresh bodies that can collapse the pocket, but they missed the boat on addressing their issues at both wide receiver and offensive tackle.
After releasing Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman, the Panthers went heavy in the defensive back category at the draft where they selected three cornerbacks with the most intriguing one being Oklahoma Sooners cornerback Zack Sanchez in the fifth round. And like Norman, Sanchez has an eye for the football as it should not take him that long to become a household name in Charlotte.
First Round Pick: Keanu Neal-Safety-Florida
Best Pick: Keanu Neal
After Dan Quinn went 8-8 in his first season as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2015, he is looking to build off of that and get this team back to the postseason for the first time since 2012. And that process began at the National Football League Draft.
The Falcons needed to concentrate on their defense which needs more play makers. The Falcons had the 17th overall pick which they used on Florida Gators safety Keanu Neal who has solid range in the secondary. Atlanta needs a player like Neal due to the fact that the NFC South is home to some quality quarterbacks that can put pressure on opposing defenses as the Falcons need a strong general in their secondary.
But unfortunately for the Falcons and their fan base, the highlight of the 2016 National Football League Draft was selecting Neal as they were unable to bring in other quality players that can have an immediate impact which puts a dark cloud over the upcoming NFL season in Atlanta.
New Orleans Saints
First Round Pick: Sheldon Rankins-Defensive Tackle-Louisville
Best Pick: Round Two- Michael Thomas-Wide Receiver-Ohio State
The New Orleans entered the National Football League Draft not owning that many picks, but they attempted to make the most with their selections. Last year the Saints defense was torched as they were 31st in the National Football League in total defense. And for Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, he couldn’t go wrong by adding bodies at any level of the defense.
In the first round the Saints decided on Louisville Cardinals defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins who has solid speed for a player his size which will be important as he looks to penetrate gaps on the offensive line. The Saints also used a second round pick on Ohio State Buckeyes safety Vonn Bell as they are hoping that he can bringing some swagger to the Bayou after winning a national championship in college. The Saints would also select Bell’s college teammate in the second round in wide receiver Michael Thomas. At 6’3″, 212 lbs., Thomas has some size at the wide receiver position that the Saints need while it shouldn’t take him that long to get on the same page with quarterback Drew Brees who knows how to keep all of his receivers involved in the offense.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
First Round Pick: Vernon Hargreaves-Cornerback III-Cornerback-Florida
Best Pick: Vernon Hargreaves
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers already have their franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, and now they are looking to sure things up on the defensive side of the ball. The 2016 National Football League Draft saw the Buccaneers concentrate heavy on defense as they are looking to become a playoff contender.
The Bucs used their first-round choice on Florida Gators cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III. At 5’10”, Hargreaves will be looking up to the majority of the wide receivers that he’ll be covering, but he will make up for it with the solid coverage skills that he possesses. The second round saw the Buccaneers select Eastern Kentucky Colonels defensive end Noah Spence. At 6’2″, 251 lbs., Spence could be a hybrid player at both defensive end and outside linebacker which gives defensive coordinator Mike Smith options as far as using his skill set.
But I was surprised with Tampa Bay selecting Florida State Seminoles kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round. Aguayo does possess a big leg, however that early in the draft isn’t typically reserved to see a specialty player chosen. And that is something that could come back to haunt the Buccaneers in the long run.