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.
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.
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.
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.
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.