Super Bowl Runner-Up: Carolina Panthers
I found it extremely difficult to decide who will come out of the NFC. The Seahawks, Cardinals, and Packers all have worthy cases while the Cowboys and Vikings are an injured Quarterback away from joining in the conversation. I decided to choose the team that plays in a division that doesn’t have any of those other elite teams in it. I think the Buccaneers, Falcons, and Saints are all solid teams who should all go somewhere between 7-9 and 9-7, but none of them will be good enough to challenge the Panthers for the division title.
There are some statistics to support the notion that the Panthers will regress this year. They were 6-1 in games decided by a Touchdown or less, they had +2.6 Pythagorean wins (explanation of Pythagorean wins), and they benefitted from a +20 turnover differential. So let’s say they regress by 5 wins based on those stats alone, that would still give them a 10-6 record. While they almost certainly won’t go 15-1 again, this team will still win the NFC South comfortably and challenge the rest of a very strong NFC.
A Panthers preview has to start with the league’s reigning MVP Cam Newton. If you were to create a My Player on Madden, you would create Cam Newton. He’s 6’5″ 245 lbs., has a rocket launcher for an arm, and runs a 4.59 40. Along with those insane physical tools, he has developed into a very good pre-snap QB by improving immensely in reading defenses and getting his offense into the right play.
Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula has created one of my favorite offensive schemes in the NFL His college-style run game incorporates a lot of misdirection and QB runs where the offense benefits from having 10 blockers instead of 9 on a typical Running Back handoff. They balance the run by taking a lot of deep shots in the passing game along with a lot of crossing routes in play-action. Losing Kelvin Benjamin to a pre-season injury actually made this offense better because they were forced to become more creative with their lack of talent at WR. Now they get to add Kelvin Benjamin to a receiving corps consisting of size in Greg Olsen, Devin Funchess, and Ed Dickson; and speed in Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey “Philly” Brown.
The Offensive Line is incredibly strong on the interior with Guard Andrew Norwell and Center Ryan Kalil who both excel in run blocking, along with one of the best all-around Guards in the NFL, Trai Turner. They are fairly weak at Tackle with LT Michael Oher protecting the “Blind Side” and RT Mike Remmers, who was one of the biggest reasons the Panthers offense struggled so much in Super Bowl 50. Cam’s excellent size, stature, and pocket presence will overcome some poor Tackle play and this is still probably a top 5 unit in the NFL.
Johnathan Stewart, Cameron Artis-Payne, and Fozzy Whitaker form a very talented trio of Running Backs to run behind Pro Bowl Fullback/bowling ball Mike Tolbert. Along with Cam’s running ability this offense should be dominant in the run game, which is so crucial to winning in December and January.
Once the offense gets this team out to big leads, like it did so often last year, the defense will make you want to quit and go home by the 3rd Quarter. It all starts with Luke Kuechly who will be in the conversation for being one of the best Linebackers of all time very soon. His playmaking instincts will make your jaw drop when watching film and he is just as good defending the run as he is in coverage. With Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson alongside Kuechly this is easily the best coverage unit in the league, which is so important in today’s NFL where Tight Ends have become almost impossible to cover.
The Panthers hope the coverage skills of the LB corps will be able to mask a secondary void of both talent and experience with the loss of Josh Norman and Charles Tillman. Norman and Tillman will be replaced by 3 rookies, none of whom were taken in the First Round. They have a duo of underrated Safties in Kurt Coleman and Tre Boston, but they will have their hands full behind these young Cornerbacks trying to adjust to the NFL.
The Panthers also hope to mask their ugly secondary with a stellar Defensive Line. Kawann Short has proven to be one of the league’s best interior defenders where he is joined by a solid performer in DT Star Lotoulelei. DE Charles Johnson missed much of the ’15 season, but when he’s healthy, he is a great pass rusher. DE Kony Ealy really came on at the end of last season and capped it off with a fantastic Super Bowl performance where he amassed 3 sacks and an interception.
The only weakness on this team is it’s secondary, but it’s a scary one. If they can scheme around it and cover it up with great Linebacker play in coverage, along with a dominant pass rush, they should be punching their ticket for back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
Super Bowl Champion: New England Patriots
I picked Alabama to repeat as champions of the College Football Playoff, and I’m using similar logic by predicting that the New England Patriots hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February. I’m not exactly going out on a limb predicting that the two best organizations in football end the season as champions of their respective leagues, and Bill Bellichick and Nick Saban are far from being the sexiest picks, but more often than not they are the right ones.
It’s no secret that the Patriots boast one of the best coach and Quarterback duos of all time in Bellichick and Brady. They win football games by outsmarting the opponent and taking advantage of another team’s weakness. The NFL is a league defined by matchups, and no one knows how to exploit a mismatch better than these two.
Besides their advantages in the mental aspect of the game, the Patriots also have the most balanced roster in the league with top-level talent in just about every position group. The team’s one weakness would be their offensive line, which is also a weakness of many other NFL teams. Tom Brady’s pre-snap prowess helps to cover up that weakness by getting the correct play called and shifting the protection towards the pressure. Their offensive scheme is also based on getting the ball out of the Quarterback’s hands quickly with a short to intermediate passing game dominating the middle of the field. This passing game works to the talents of Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, who are two of the league’s top slot Wide Receivers, as well as Tight Ends Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, who feast on physical mismatches with Linebackers and Safeties.
The Patriot offense was at it’s best in 2007 when they started out the year 18-0 thanks to Randy Moss finally giving Tom Brady a deep target to throw to. The Patriots might have finally drafted a legitimate deep threat this year in WR Malcom Mitchell out of Georgia. He was a standout in college, and has looked very good in the preseason. If he can provide any sort of deep threat along with Edelman, Amendola, Gronk and Bennett tearing up the middle of the opponent’s defenses, this offense could be unstoppable.
Brady is suspended the first four games, but I don’t think that will hurt this team’s Super Bowl dreams. Bellichick has had an entire offseason to prepare for his absence, and the defense is absolutely stacked with talent, giving them the ability to win some low-scoring games early on. Even if they start the season 0-4, which is unlikely, this team is good enough to finish the season 10-2 or 9-3 to get into the playoffs.
The Patriots defense has absolutely no weakness, even after the departure of OLB Chandler Jones. DE Jabal Sheard was very impressive in a limited role as a pass rusher last season, and will look to sustain that production with a higher snap count in 2016. Defensive Tackles Malcom Brown and Alan Branch are very stout up the middle, and a rotation of Trey Flowers, Chris Long, and Rob Ninkovich should perform very well along with the aforementioned Sheard at Defensive End.
The Patriots still have two of the league’s best Linebackersin Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower even after trading Chandler Jones to the Cardinals . If they can get consistent production out of Jonathan Freeny, Shea McClellin, or Barkevius Mingo, this will probably be the 2nd best LB corps in the league behind the team mentioned at the top of this article.
The Patriots boast a top-5 secondary to put behind an fearsome front 7. Malcom Butler is best known for his game-winning interception of Russel Wilson in Super Bowl 49, and he has proven that play wasn’t a fluke by becoming a legit shutdown Corner. Butler is joined by CB Logan Ryan who is one of the surest tacklers in the league and has performed very well in coverage. Behind those two Cornerbacks is where the dynamic Safety tandem of Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty reside. They pair 12 years of combined NFL experience with strong athletic ability and ball-hawking skills to form a superb Safety duo.
The Patriots always have one of the league’s best Special Teams units and this year is no different with a crop of proven Kick and Punt Returners to go along with Stephen Gostkowski, who has carried on the tradition of great Patriot kickers begun by Adam Vinatieri.
The Patriots are far and away the best team in the AFC, and will be on a mission once Brady comes back from his suspension. I would advise not betting against a pissed off Patriots team who will be out to prove that they haven’t built one the NFL’s greatest dynasties on a pile of deflated footballs.