Tag Archives: Ron Rivera

2017 NFC South Projections

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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.

Cam Newton

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.

Greg Olsen

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

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.

Devonta Freeman

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.

Vic Beasley Jr.

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?

Jameis Winston

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?

Drew Brees

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.

Willie Snead

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.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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Super Bowl Hangover

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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.

Dave Gettleman

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.

Cam Newton

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.

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2016 NFC South Projections

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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

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.

Greg Olsen

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.

Ron Rivera

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.

Matt Ryan

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.

Devonta Freeman

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.

Drew Brees

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.

Cameron Jordan

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.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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The Richardson Way

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Jerry Richardson

From his first day on the job, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has been adorned as a hero. In 1993, Richardson was awarded a National Football League franchise and they would make their on-field debut in 1995. At the Panthers inception, they would play at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina which is on the campus of Clemson University. The Panthers would then move into their current home of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1996. And regardless of where the Panthers play, they are a team that has brought the Carolinas together.

After defeating the Arizona Cardinals this past Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, the Panthers are set to play in the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history. But it is the patience and vision of Richardson that is leading the way.

In 21 years of competing in the National Football League, the Panthers have only employed four head coaches which is a position that any organization needs stability in if they are going to win. Richardson avoids the limelight while instead opting for giving the people under him an opportunity to succeed.

Ron Rivera

In 2010, the Panthers were coming off of a 2-14  season and as Richardson was looking to rebuild, he decided to not renew the contract of head coach John Fox who has the most wins in franchise history. Richardson would replace Fox with Ron Rivera who played linebacker in the National Football League for nine years as a member of the Chicago Bears. Rivera’s first order of business was to get himself a franchise quarterback, and as the Panthers held the first overall selection in the 2011 National Football League Draft, they selected quarterback Cam Newton.

Cam Newton

There was a learning curve for both Rivera and Newton as both were inexperienced in their new positions in the National Football League. And even though the Panthers went 6-10 in 2011, Newton was named as the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year. But after the Panthers began 2012 with a record of 3-9, there were rumors that Rivera might get fired. The Panthers would rally to win their final four games that year and after meeting with Richardson, Rivera was told that he would be returning for 2013. Things didn’t get started on the right foot for the Panthers in 2013 as they stumbled to a 1-3 start. However a seven-game winning streak would ensue for Carolina as they would go on to win the NFC South for the first time since 2008. In 2014, the Panthers would then become the first team in the history of the NFC South to win the division in consecutive years, but they couldn’t get past the divisional round of the playoffs.

After being so close to taking that next step, things began to come together for the Panthers in 2015 in spite of the odds being against them. Last season as a rookie, wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was tied for the Panthers team lead in receiving yards with 1,008 and he was expected to take a bigger role with the team this season. But on the very first day of training camp, Benjamin suffered a torn ACL which ended his campaign before it even got started. Carolina would being the 2015 National Football League season by winning games ugly as they relied on their power rushing attack and strong defense. And before you knew it, the Panthers were 4-0.

In Week 6, the Panthers showed their maturity as they secured comeback victory on the road against the Seattle Seahawks who have been a thorn in the side of Carolina in recent years. In all the Panthers would win their first 14 games this season and they still felt that they weren’t getting enough respect. The Panthers would become the first team since the 2007 New England Patriots to win at least 15 regular season games and they would head into the postseason still possessing a chip on their shoulders as they felt that they had something to prove.

In the NFC Divisional Playoffs, the Panthers raced to a 31-0 halftime lead against the Seahawks before holding on for the 31-24 victory. Last Sunday would see the Panthers host their first NFC Championship Game in franchise history as they welcomed the Arizona Cardinals to Charlotte. As the regular season progressed and the Panthers emerged as the best team in the NFC, they had to hear about the Cardinals being a team that could go into Charlotte and get a playoff victory. But Carolina would punch the Cards in the mouth as they raced to a 17-0 first quarter lead and they never looked back as they won 49-15. And for Richardson and the Panthers, it marks the second NFC Championship in franchise history as his patience with Newton and Rivera have indeed paid off.

Richardson knows a thing or two about winning as he played for the Baltimore Colts and he was a member of their team that won the National Football League Championship in 1959. After Richardson’s NFL career ended, he had a hand in bringing the first Hardee’s franchise to Spartanburg, South Carolina. As an NFL owner, Richardson has never backed away from making difficult decisions which included him parting with wide receiver Rae Carruth in 1999 once it was revealed that he was involved in the murder of his girlfriend. In 2011, Richardson was influential in the owner’s lockout of the players that summer while in 2014, he didn’t have a problem in parting with defensive end Greg Hardy after his domestic violence incident in spite of some Panthers players pleading to keep him.

Richardson also knows a thing or two about bringing the right football people in to run his team. Bill Polian was the first general manager in Panthers franchise history and he oversaw a team in 1996 that became the fastest expansion team to win a division title in National Football League history. In 2013, Richardson hired Dave Gettleman to be the Panthers new general manager. Prior to joining the Panthers, Gettleman had worked in the New York Giants front office for 14 years where he helped the organization win a pair of Super Bowl Championships. The Giants teams that won the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2011 each had tremendous depth on both sides of the football and Gettleman has brought that same depth to the Panthers; especially on the defense.

This season the Panthers were sixth in the National Football League in total defense while they amassed 44 sacks while being plus-20 in the turnover category. And once you factor in a quarterback in Newton that will more than likely be the NFL’s MVP this season, it is no wonder why the Panthers will be taking the field for Super Bowl 50 next week.

The Panthers are on the verge of something great as Richardson could become the first owner who also played in the National Football League to win the Super Bowl while Rivera could join a very short list of men to play in and win the Super Bowl as a head coach. Newton can also become the first quarterback since Eli Manning in 2011 to be the first overall pick of the NFL Draft and go on to win the Super Bowl. And none of this would have been possible if Richardson had been like most NFL owners do which is listen to the white noise and make a change at head coach quickly, which typically has a bad trickle down effect on the rest of the organization.

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2015 NFC South Projections

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X-Carolina Panthers 10-6

Generally when teams in the National Football League finish the season with a record of 7-8-1, it symbolizes that you were close to being a playoff team, but you were too inconsistent. That was the record of the Carolina Panthers last season which was actually good enough for them to win the NFC South. And as inconsistent as the Panthers were in 2014, they have the potential to be much more dynamic in 2015.

Cam Newton

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera have done a good job in building around quarterback Cam Newton as they look to win the NFC South for an unprecedented third consecutive year. Newton was only 5-8-1 as the Panthers starting quarterback last season, but he was rewarded by the Panthers as they signed him to a five-year, $103.8 million extension this off-season. Newton threw 18 interceptions last season and his completion percentage was 58.5, but the Panthers believe in him as far as being the quarterback that can get them to the Super Bowl.

Around Newton, the Panthers have big options for him in the passing game. Tight end Greg Olsen is 6’5″ and rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess is 6’4″ as people may confuse them for the Charlotte Hornets. And the size and pass catching ability of Olsen and Funchess will somehow be able to offset the loss of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin who tore his ACL in training camp.

But regardless who the coach of the Panthers is, their bread and butter has always been their rushing attack. The Panthers were seventh in rushing in the NFL last season and this year running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to get the bulk of the work after Carolina parted with longtime running back DeAngelo Williams. Stewart is entering his eighth season in the NFL, but he has only had one season where he carried the football at least 200 times. And just in case that Stewart is unable to be the feature back for the Panthers, the team did draft running back Cameron Artis-Payne who will give them an element of speed.

Under Rivera, the Panthers know how to wreak havoc on defense as they finished last season ranked tenth overall in total defense which is due to the fact that they can get after teams at every level. Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei plugs up holes on the defensive line which makes the job of inside linebacker Luke Kuechly that much easier. In just three seasons in the National Football League, Kuechly has already been named as the Defensive Rookie of the Year and the Defensive Player of the Year as he tackles anything that moves. In the off-season, the Panthers did sign longtime Chicago Bears cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman. Tillman is 34-years of age and he can be a teacher in the Panthers secondary as he has perfected the art of stripping the football from opponents.

The Panthers first four games of 2015 will not see them face a team that made that playoffs last year, but two of those games will be within the NFC South as they’ll take on the New Orleans Saints which will be followed by a road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After the Panthers bye week in Week 5, they will travel to take on the Seattle Seahawks as these two clubs have engaged in some physical battles recently and this year’s meeting could have an impact on playoff seeding in the NFC. The Panthers are built to win the NFC South, but the loss of Benjamin could prevent them from making a deep run in the postseason.

Atlanta Falcons 8-8

No head coach in the history of the Atlanta Falcons has won more games the Mike Smith, but the bottom fell out for him in 2015. Smith was 66-46 in seven seasons as the head coach of the Falcons including a trip to the NFC Championship Game in 2012. But in Smith’s last two seasons in Atlanta, the team was 10-22 which led Falcons owner Arthur Blank to fire him. Smith has been replaced by former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn who will look to inject some of that Seahawks swagger into the Falcons.

Matt Ryan

Quinn won’t be starting from scratch in Atlanta as he has a Pro Bowl caliber quarterback in Matt Ryan. Ryan has passed for more than 4,000 yards in each of the last four seasons as he is now the franchise’s all-time passing leader. The Falcons had the fifth ranked passing offense in the National Football League last season and along the way there was a changing of the guards. Injuries limited wide receiver Roddy White last season which saw Julio Jones emerge in the Falcons offense. Jones had 104 receptions and set a Falcons franchise single-season record with 1,593 receiving yards. Jones is beginning to show the talent that made the Falcons trade up twenty spots in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft to select him. White is 33-years of age and coming off of knee problems that hindered him in 2014, but he can still be effective in the Falcons offense.

Ryan was sacked 31 times in 2014 and it will be the job of the Falcons offensive line led by left tackle Jake Matthews to prevent the franchise quarterback from being on his back while looking up at the lights in the Georgia Dome as much as possible.

The Falcons have lacked a strong running game in recent years and the young legs of second-year running back Devonta Freeman and rookie running back Tevin Coleman are going to be needed in order to balance out Atlanta’s offense.

However Quinn will have to start from scratch with the Falcons defensively as they finished last in the National Football League last season in total defense. The Falcons only totaled 22 quarterback sacks last season and that isn’t going to get it done in a division that has Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

Dan Quinn

Quinn is attempting to change the culture in the Falcons locker room and it will take some time. The early part of the Falcons schedule does have an NFC East theme as they’ll begin the season against the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Dallas Cowboys. The Falcons won’t have their first divisional game until Week 6 when they travel to take on the Saints as they look to become a playoff contender in 2015.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 6-10

A 2-14 record in 2014 earned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the first overall pick of the 2015 National Football League Draft. The Buccaneers made no secret about the fact that they wanted Jameis Winston to be their next starting quarterback and they used the first overall pick of the draft on him this past spring.

Jameis Winston

In two years as the starting quarterback at Florida State University, Winston posted a record of 26-1 to go along with leading the school to a national championship and winning the 2013 Heisman Trophy. Winston has all of the physical tools necessary to be a good professional quarterback, but the Bucs will have to tread with him caution due to the fact that he has had several off-the-field issues while he was in college. But as long as Winston comes in prepared to play, he can have immediate success in the Bucs offense. Last year Tampa Bay had two wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans who both had over 1,000 yards receiving. Jackson and Evans are each 6’5″ and they provide match-up nightmares for opposing defensive backs; especially in the red zone.

But the Bucs must get more out of their running game that was 29th in the National Football League last season and their leading rusher was Doug Martin with just 494 yards. And if Tampa Bay is unable to run the football more efficient in 2015, it will mean that too much pressure will be placed on the right arm of Winston this year.

Surprisingly the Buccaneers were 25th in the NFL last year in total defense under head coach Lovie Smith. Smith is a defensive guru when it comes to coaching the “Cover 2”, but he needs players that are going to step up and make plays in his system.

The Bucs first test of the season will come in Week 4 when they host the Carolina Panthers who are the defending NFC South Champions and a victory there could give Tampa Bay the confidence they need to contend for a playoff berth in 2015.

New Orleans Saints 5-11

The New Orleans Saints are coming off of their second losing campaign in the past three seasons and what they are currently cooking up down on the Bayou isn’t going to get them any closer to turning things around. Ever since quarterback Drew Brees signed his $100 million contract extension with the Saints in 2012, the team around him hasn’t been that good which is evident in their record. Brees is coming off of his ninth consecutive season in which he passed for at least 4,000 yards and he also led the National Football League in pass attempts with 659. But as good as Brees is, one man cannot do it by himself in the NFL.

Brees’ security blanket with the Saints the past four years has been tight end Jimmy Graham. But like Brees, Graham wanted more money and with New Orleans unwilling to give him the long-term financial security that he was seeking, he was traded this off-season to the Seattle Seahawks which leaves a huge void in the offense for New Orleans.

Rob Ryan is set to enter his third year as Saints defensive coordinator, but he still hasn’t been able to find the impact players that are necessary for his 3-4 defensive scheme to flourish.

The magic appears to be running out for Saints head coach Sean Payton and Brees in New Orleans as this team is nowhere near ready to compete for another Super Bowl Championship.

X-Clinched Division

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In Cam We Trust

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Jerry Richarson

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has put a tremendous amount of stock into quarterback Cam Newton. The Panthers made Newton the first overall pick of the 2011 National Football League Draft. And before Newton was drafted, Richardson let him know that he would not be allowed to have any body piercings or tattoos. In four years as the Panthers starting quarterback, Newton’s record is 30-31-1 while he has thrown 82 touchdown passes to 54 interceptions. Newton has led the Panthers to the NFC South Championship in the last two years as he has become the face of the franchise in Charlotte. And now Richardson and the Panthers inked Newton to an extension to keep him under center in Charlotte for the coming years.

The Panthers and Newton recently agreed to a five-year extension worth $103.8 million with $67.6 million being fully guaranteed. Newton has now been compensated as an elite NFL quarterback and now it is time for him and the Panthers to live up to this deal.

Cam Newton

Big contracts in sports come with big expectations and now more than ever, the folks in Charlotte that follow the Panthers are going to be thinking Super Bowl. At 6’6″, 260 lbs., Newton is a very imposing figure on the football field and his broad shoulders have in the past immensely supported the Panthers. But winning a championship is more than one player as it comes down to a complete team effort which begins with the front office.

Dave Gettleman

Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman has been on the job since 2013 and he has enjoyed success as Carolina has made the playoffs in each season under him. Gettleman has been putting quality players around Newton through the National Football League Draft. Last year as a rookie, Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin finished the season tied for the team lead in receiving yards with 1,008 while he was also the recipient of 9 receiving touchdowns. But in the new NFL where there has been more of an emphasis on passing, the Panthers drafted wide receiver Devin Funchess in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft and Carolina is hopeful that he can become another quality receiver in the passing game for Newton. Under head coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers have always had a strong rushing attack which was evident by the fact that they finished seventh in the NFL last season in rushing. And as long as the Panthers have a balance on offense between rushing and passing, it should only magnify Newton’s ability at the most important position on the football field. It also doesn’t hurt the Panthers that led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, they had the tenth ranked defense in the NFL last season which further illustrates their desire to not put everything on Newton.

But with all of that, the next step for Newton is to become more refined as a quarterback. Newton has a career completion percentage of 59.5 and he has never had a season in which he had a completion percentage above 62 percent. The Panthers don’t need Newton to throw for 350 yards per game like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees does, but what they do need him to do is take care of the football with more efficiency in the first three quarters of the game as he has shown that he can get it done when the chips are pushed to the middle of the table at the end of contests.

Newton is set to enter his fifth year as the Panthers starting quarterback while it will be his third with Mike Shula as the team’s offensive coordinator. And prior to becoming the Panthers offensive coordinator in 2013, Shula was the team’s quarterbacks coach for Newton’s first two years as there is a wealth of familiarity between the two men which should only help Newton going forward.

Ron Rivera

Newton’s deal also reflects Richardson belief in him as well as in Rivera. Richardson was on the verge of firing Rivera in 2012, but after a face-to-face meeting between the owner and head coach at the end of the season, cooler heads prevailed and what Richardson has is a franchise that became the first team in NFC South history to win consecutive division titles. Richardson is a patient owner as in his 21 years in charge of the Panthers, he has only employed four head coaches and with the exception of George Seifert, each head coach under him has made the postseason at least once. But for Rivera, he has proven that he can make the playoffs; now it comes down to winning the Super Bowl which falls back on Newton.

Fairly or unfairly, quarterbacks are judged first and foremost by wins and losses. And now it is time for Newton to bring the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Charlotte. The Panthers are building a team around him along with compensating him for his services which means that the bar of expectations has increased. Newton has been paid like an elite quarterback and now he must win like one.

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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Potential NFL Head Coaching Carousel

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With the regular season in the National Football League winding down there are teams that are focusing on the playoffs while the rest are planning for next season. And for some of those teams that are looking ahead to next season they might have a different head coach leading them into battle as “Black Monday” is right around the corner in the NFL. So with the hot seats heating up for some head coaches, who will survive and who will receive the dreaded pink slip?

Marc Trestman-Chicago Bears

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Marc Trestman

Marc Trestman was hired as the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2013 to be the guy to fix up the offense and get this team back to Super Bowl contention. Trestman inherited a 10-6 club, but he decided to not re-sign middle linebacker Brian Urlacher in 2013 and as a result the Bears had the 30th ranked defense in the National Football League. This season things have gotten worse as the Bears are currently 5-9 and Trestman has now decided to bench starting quarterback Jay Cutler. Reports are surfacing about friction within the Bears locker room between players and coaches after Trestman failed to firmly reprimand offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer after he was sighted as an unnamed source that had recently been critical of Cutler’s play to the Chicago media.

After winning his first three games as Bears head coach, Trestman has never won more than two in a row since and a frustrated Bears fan base is looking for changes. I highly doubt that you will see Trestman at Halas Hall come the spring.

Prediction: All but done

Jim Harbaugh-San Francisco 49ers

When Jim Harbaugh became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, it appeared to be a marriage made in heaven. That season Harbaugh led the Niners to their first playoff appearance in nearly a decade which culminated with a trip to the NFC Championship Game. In each of Harbaugh’s first three seasons in San Francisco, the Niners made it to the NFC Championship Game with a trip to the Super Bowl in 2012. But after last season reports began to surface as far friction between Harbaugh and 49ers general manager Trent Baalke. The Cleveland Browns were attempting to acquire Harbuagh from the 49ers before cooler heads prevailed.

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Trent Baalke, Jim Harbaugh

The 49ers have taken a step backwards this season as they are currently 7-7 and they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention. The distraction from the beef between Harbaugh and Baalke has trickled down to the team as the 49ers have not been in sync all season long.

Once the 49ers were eliminated from postseason contention Harbaugh’s name has been linked to the University of Michigan which is his alma mater where he would be welcomed with open arms and also be Baalke free.

Prediction: Out of town on the first thing smoking

Rex Ryan-New York Jets

http://www.realclearsports.com/images/wysiwyg_images/2014footballhotseat/rex-ryan.jpgIn 2009, Rex Ryan was the brash man that never met a camera that he didn’t like when he became the New York Jets head coach. From his introductory press conference with the Jets, Ryan let it be known that wasn’t there to bow down to the New England Patriots and “kiss Bill Belichick’s rings.” In Ryan first two years with the Jets, he got them to the AFC Championship Game, but the team has regressed ever since as they have failed to make the postseason. In 2013, Jets owner Woody Johnson fired team general manager Mike Tannenbaum while deciding to retain Ryan. This practice by Johnson made it tough for the Jets to find a worthwhile general manager and thus they settled on John Idzik. With Idzik and Ryan working together the Jets are 11-19 as the marriage has not worked. The Jets are expected to fire Idzik after the season and it will be all but impossible for Johnson to retain Ryan once more under another general manager.

Prediction: Gone

Tony Sparano-Oakland Raiders

http://www.tsmplug.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/mike-brisiel-tony-sparano-nfl-washington-redskins-oakland-raiders1.jpgThe Oakland Raiders began this season with a record of 0-4 which led to the dismissal of head coach Dennis Allen. Allen was replaced as the Raiders head coach by Tony Sparano who has the interim tag attached to him. Under Sparano, the Raiders are 2-8 and they still have the look of one of the worst teams in the National Football League. Raiders owner Mark Davis is looking to make a splash this off-season and we could see wholesale changes being made to the silver and black.

Prediction: Sparano’s bags are already packed

Joe Philbin-Miami Dolphins

If nothing else the Miami Dolphins have been consistently inconsistent under head coach Joe Philbin. In nearly three seasons under Philbin, the Dolphins are 22-24. Last season the Dolphins were 8-6 and they only needed to win one of their last two games to be playoff bound, but they lost both contests. Philbin was also barely able to survive the Dolphins bullying scandal last season that sent shock waves around the NFL. The Dolphins have lost their last two games by a combined score of 69-26 and at 7-7, their playoff hopes are doubtful.

Prediction: There’s a slim chance that Philbin could be back next season

Mike Smith-Atlanta Falcons

http://standingosports.com/main/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/mikesmith.jpgIn nearly seven seasons as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Mike Smith has won more games (65) than any other head coach in the franchise’s history. In Smith’s first five seasons with the Falcons, the team never endured a losing season with four playoff appearances. But in those four playoff appearances the Falcons only won a single postseason game. The injury bug has limited the Falcons chances in the past two seasons as they are 9-21. The Falcons are 5-9 this season, but their saving grace is that they are in the NFC South and they still have a puncher’s chance to make the playoffs.

Prediction: Even if the Falcons make the playoffs it will come down to the mindset of team owner Arthur Blank

Ron Rivera-Carolina Panthers

Ron Rivera has been the head coach of the Carolina Panthers since 2011. After going 6-10 under Rivera in 2011, the Panthers began 2012 with a record of 2-8. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was on the verge of firing Rivera that year, but the team rallied to win five out of their last six ball games that season to finish with a record of 7-9. The Panthers won the NFC South with a record of 12-4 last season and the expectations for them were once again high this season.

http://www4.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Ron+Rivera+Carolina+Panthers+v+San+Francisco+dOG46mwA_jjl.jpgThe Panthers got this season going on the right foot as they won their first two games. But over their next 10 games the Panthers would only go 1-8-1. The Panthers have rebounded to win their last two games and with a record of 5-8-1 they are right in the thick of things to repeat as NFC South Champs. Rivera is 30-31-1 in nearly four seasons as the Panthers head coach including being the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 2013, but how much support does he have from Richardson?

Prediction: 50/50

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2014 NFC South Projections

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X-New Orleans Saints 10-6

Last year the New Orleans Saints made their fourth playoff appearance in the last five years. In 2014, Saints head coach Sean Payton is hopeful that his team can return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009.

Drew Brees

Saints quarterback Drew Brees has passed for more than 5,000 yards in the last three seasons and you can expect another campaign like that this season due to the rules in the National Football League that protect quarterbacks and wide receivers alike. Bress and the Saints will miss running back Darren Sproles who is now with the Philadelphia Eagles. Sproles was huge coming out of the backfield as a receiver on third down. The Saints will look to Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas to be their workhorse running backs this season.

The Saints still have tight end Jimmy Graham who is a match-up nightmare for opponents and he will once again be Brees’s go-to-guy.

Rob Ryan is entering his second year as the Saints defensive coordinator and he is starting to get his type of players to be in the 3-4 defense. Saints strong safety Kenny Vaccarro is returning from injury and he will be a player that will flourish under Ryan in 2014. Vaccarro had 62 tackles last season before an injury ended his campaign.

Of the Saints first six opponents this season none of them had a winning record in 2013 which bodes well for New Orleans as they will try to get off to a fast start which could allow them to get a home game for the postseason.

Carolina Panthers 9-7

Ron Rivera

With his job on the line last season, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera guided his squad to the postseason for the first time since 2008. Rivera is a defensive minded head coach that relies on a tough defensive club which he currently has. The Panthers had the second ranked defense in the National Football League last season as they were led by middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year and he simply tackles anything that crosses his path.

But for the Panthers to have success this season it cannot simply be just about their defense. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is entering his fourth season in Charlotte and he has done some good things there. But more than ever Newton needs to have a stud wide receiver to throw the football to. The Panthers drafted wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the first round of the NFL Draft this past spring which was a reach as he lacks explosion. The Panthers also released longtime wide receiver Steve Smith who was a security blanket for Newton in years past. Newton is also coming off of off-season ankle surgery and he may not be as mobile in 2014 as he has been previously which could put more of a strain on Carolina’s offense.

If the Panthers fail to make the playoffs in 2014 it will be hard for me to see Rivera returning to Charlotte in 2015.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 7-9

Lovie Smith

The Greg Schiano era was a disaster from the start which is why former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is now running the show for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In nine years as the head coach of the Bears, Smith compiled a record of 81-63 which was highlighted by him leading Chicago to the Super Bowl following the 2006 NFL season. Smith has a past life in Tampa as from 1996-2000 as he was the Buccaneers linebackers coach. The Cover 2 defense that has at times has been referred to as the “Tampa 2” will once again be prevalent with Smith running the show, but does he have the pieces for it to be successful this season?

Defensively the Bucs have a defensive line that features defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn, Michael Johnson, and William Gholston. McCoy, middle linebacker Mason Foster, and strong safety Mark Barron will be vital because the strength of the Cover 2 is right up the middle of the defense and it remains to be seen whether or not the Buccaneers will be up for the challenge defensively.

Quarterback Josh McCown is set to join his sixth NFL team this season with the Bucs. McCown was a backup quarterback for the Bears during Smith’s last year there in 2012 which means that there is some familiarity between them. McCown has talent around him with some very big wide receivers in Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans. The Buccaneers could also have an impact made by their trio of tight ends in Brandon Myers, Luke Stocker, and rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins who will be mainly a receiving tight end.

The Buccaneers recently acquired guard Logan Mankins from the New England Patriots who will be a veteran presence on an offensive line that struggled at times last year in Tampa and this team must get better in the trenches.

The Bucs first two games of the season are at home as they’ll host the Carolina Panthers and St. Louis Rams respectively. Even if the Buccaneers start off slow this season, Smith will not allow his squad to get down on themselves as he’ll preach focus and determination.

Atlanta Falcons 5-11

Like any other sport there are championship windows that teams have in the National Football League. While the window can be bigger for some teams rather than others you still must make the most of you opportunity. Mike Smith took over as the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2008 and in four of his six seasons there he has led the club to the postseason. Twice the Falcons have finished the regular season with the best record in the NFC, but over that stretch they have only been able to win one playoff game. Last year the Falcons had their worst season since 2007 as they went 4-12 and they are hopeful for a quick turnaround this year.

Matt Ryan

Quarterback Matt Ryan is set to begin his seventh season with the Falcons and he has done some tremendous things there. Ryan is already the Falcons all-time franchise leader in passing yards while compiling a record of 60-34 as a starting quarterback. Last year Ryan was done in by the injury bug as the Falcons team around him crumbled but he is hoping for a different outcome this year.

Last year the Falcons offensive line was in shambles. The Falcons drafted offensive tackle Jake Matthews early in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft as he is expected to anchor their o-line at left tackle. When healthy Falcons wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White are one of the best combinations in football and Ryan needs the pair to be available for the entire 2014 campaign. Last year the Falcons were dead last in the NFL in rushing. This past spring Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff drafted running back Devonta Freeman in the fourth round, but it will be tough for him to come in immediately and fill that void in Atlanta’s struggling running game. Tight ends Bear Pascoe and Levine Toilolo will have their hands full in replacing tight end Tony Gonzalez who retired.

Last year the Falcons defense was tied for 27th in the league and by not adding any major impact players I do not see the unit improving that much for the upcoming season.

The Falcons will begin the season against a pair of playoff teams from last season in the New Orleans Saints and Cincinnati Bengals respectively and this season could get away from Atlanta even before it really starts.

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

X-Clinched Division

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