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.
Dirk Koetter, 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.