With everyone picking looming disaster along the Carolina Panthers’ offensive line, Cam Newton likely struggling with a still-gimpy ankle, a running game that appears to have both run its course and hit an unscalable injury wall, and very little speed on the outside, the prospects for a repeat at the top of the NFC South for this team appear dim as a comet in the daylight.
Granted that surprises happen, which is why a lot of us watch, but a stout Carolina offense would be a shock on par with the 1969 Mets. It’s not as if the defense hasn’t carried this team before and may have to again. They feature solid defensive ends, play tough in the interior line, and have plenty of talent that’s strong, quick and young at linebacker. In fact, it will be a surprise if the defense did not carry the team through many of its rougher patches.
They’ve even improved their secondary (well, on paper at least), so the hope is, as in previous years, the Panthers hold serve at home and keep the away games close enough to steal a few late. After all, it’s not like it’s the first time that’s ever happened either. Another 12-4 season is unrealistic, but 9-7 sounds about right. Unfortunately, that’s probably only good enough for third place in the division this year.
Down Louisiana way, unlike a lot of teams, there seems to have been no regression in any phase of this Saints squad during the off-season. Obviously there is a hole that will have to be filled on offense with the free agency loss of Darren Sproles, but head coach Sean Peyton is nothing if not creative about such things, and never at a loss for options.
More power in the running game may seem strange in New Orleans, but it sure makes sense this year. Going undefeated at home is again a strong possibility, and defensively they’ve upgraded talent to get even more from the potential that coordinator Rob Ryan’s scheme presents. Look for turnovers to double this season, which would put them around the middle of the pack, but it might be enough to make a big difference in a few critical road games.
This team has Super Bowl potential, but they’ve got to have home playoff games to have any real shot at it. They are the clear favorite for the division crown.
The Atlanta Falcons, for all intents and purposes, suffered the ultimate “lost season” in 2013. They lost a roster full of players to injury. They lost games as a result. Mostly they lost hope fairly early when nothing ever seemed to go right. They have added depth along the offensive and defensive lines. (That’s always a safe play.) And because they really need more push from the defensive front, they will switch to a 3-4 scheme. (Which is a risky play.)
Their offense also needs more push up front because last year they were always playing on the heels, except for quarterback Matt Ryan who was always picking himself up from off of his backside. Just about everybody needs better protection in the passing game, so in Atlanta they brought in the redoubtable Mike Tice to make a difference. He has one free agent signing and a decent draft pick to work with, but no other personnel changes were made to help Tice out.
The retirement of Tony Gonzalez means Ryan must develop another “go-to” receiver and that’s not an easy task, but when you look outside and deep, this team is as good as anybody in the NFL. Fortunately in Atlanta the talent is there, so it won’t take a miracle to improve. (Just make sure it doesn’t take a doctor.) They look like a second-place team, which has a chance in a tough division to be playoff worthy.
With all due respect to head coach Lovie Smith in his return to Florida’s west coast, why would you bring in a defensive-minded coach to turn around a team that has major offensive problems? Bringing in 35-year-old Josh McCown to get the Buccaneers’ attack moving is, at best, a stop-gap measure.
If the offensive line doesn’t get a quick influx of moxie, this gap of McCown’s is going to be narrower than Fat Man’s Misery down in Mammoth Cave. The middle of the offensive line is a huge problem, and so far the team has been mixing and matching like they were pattern shopping at the Goodwill store.
New offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has kept everyone guessing about what to expect. (I hope that doesn’t include the players as well.) Whatever his approach, improving a last place offense that did not get a big talent infusion will require considerable creativity and more than a little faith.
The Bucs’ defense is in really good shape, but could not pull off victories by itself last year and this year’s not likely to be much different. The team’s prospects would also improve with a couple of good wins early, but the schedule monster decided to take a bite out of these guys in the first third of the season. It’s easy to love Lovie, but he’s not getting much this year because it looks like last place for Tampa Bay once again.