So close, yet so far away. That is a perfect description of how the Carolina Panthers season went down last year. Carolina steamrolled the regular season to a 15-1 record after winning the first 14 games. With many believing they had hit their peak, they responded by handling the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals (more on both teams later) in the playoffs to reach the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl 50 did not go as planned for the Panthers. After being considerable favorites, Carolina had no answer for the stout Denver Broncos defense and thus fell short of the ultimate goal.
The man who led the team to the Super Bowl was NFL MVP, Cam Newton, despite being attacked from the media for his touchdown celebrations. Speaking of touchdowns, Newton threw 35 of them while adding 10 more on the ground. Unfortunately for Mr. Newton, he picked the Super Bowl to have his worst game of the year. However, 2016 is a new year for Newton and the Panthers.
If you thought Newton was good last year, he could be even better this year as he gets wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed all of last season with an ACL tear. On top of Benjamin, Newton has tight end Greg Olsen to throw to as well. The biggest question mark surrounding is the blind side. Left tackle Michael Oher has been lackluster to say the least. If Newton can remain upright, he will be just fine.
The defense is one of the very best in all of football, but their biggest question mark will be the secondary. After giving corner back Josh Norman the franchise tag and some complicated contract talks, the Panthers rescinded the offer. That didn’t sit well with Norman, who left for the Washington Redskins. Now, the Carolina secondary will see the likes of Bene Benwikere, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley. That doesn’t sound too promising, especially with the caliber of receivers in the NFC South.
The front seven remains one of the most feared in the league, led by inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is arguably the best defensive player in the NFL. Thomas Davis will be fully healthy this year after a forearm injury. Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short will continue to wreak havoc on opposing team’s quarterbacks and run games.
Is this the season that Aaron Rodgers can finally get the Green Bay Packers back to the Super Bowl? Rodgers is regarded as one of, if not the best quarterback in the NFL today, yet hasn’t made a Super Bowl appearance since winning it back in Super Bowl 45. He has been the starter since taking over for Brett Favre in 2008 and has put up numbers that put him in the conversation as best ever. The only thing hurting that resume is the lack of Super Bowl championships.
This could be the year for the former two-time MVP to get his team back to the big dance. He gets a healthy Jordy Nelson back, who missed the entire 2015 season with an ACL tear. Two seasons ago, the duo annihilated the opposition and look to pick up where they left off. Add Nelson to the likes of Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery and that makes for quite the receiving corps. The addition of tight end Jared Cook could pan out in a big way, as Rodgers loves to utilize his tight ends.
One big thing that could help the Packers offense is running back Eddie Lacy, who has gotten himself into better shape. Last year was a down year for Lacy, but a slimmed down back could be exactly what Green Bay needs. The only chink in the offensive armor could be the left side of the offensive line. The Packers surprisingly released left tackle Josh Sitton, which could cause Rodgers problems.
IF the defense can remain healthy, they will once again be a top-10 defense. With Clay Matthews moving back “home” to the outside linebacker position, that only spells trouble for the rest of the NFL. Julius Peppers is 36-years old, but proved a season ago he can still be productive. The safety duo of Morgan Bennett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are among the best in football. The biggest concern for the defensive unit is stopping the run, something they struggled with last year and will need to improve on, especially with Adrian Peterson running in the NFC North.
The most complete team in the NFL is the Arizona Cardinals. Both sides of the football are loaded with talent and that puts them as one of the favorites to not only represent the NFC, but win the Super Bowl this year.
The health of quarterback Carson Palmer will be the biggest x-factor for this team. Palmer, who is 36-years old, has an extensive history of injuries. He has played just two full season, one of which was last season, in his last five seasons played. With that being said, last year was a career-year for Palmer, who threw for 4,671 yards and 35 touchdowns. His main target was wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 109 passes for 1,215 yards and nine touchdowns. Palmer also has Michael Floyd, John and Jaron Brown at his disposal.
In order to keep Palmer healthy, head coach Bruce Arians will likely rely more on the run game. David Johnson, who will be entering his second season, will be the primary ball carrier for Arizona. Last year, he averaged 4.6 yards per carry while scoring eight touchdowns. He also proved to be a threat in the passing game, catching 36 passes for 457 yards. His role will increase and if last year is any indication, he is ready for the spotlight.
The defense is one of the elite in the NFL, led by the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu. Last year Mathieu tore his ACL, but is back and ready to prove why he’s one of the best secondary players in the game today. He can cover a ton of field, while also coming into the box and applying pressure in the run game. If he can get back to his normal self and remain healthy, that will be a good sign for the Cardinals. Joining Mathieu in the secondary is Patrick Peterson, who is a top-three corner back.
The front seven finally has a reliable pass rusher in Chandler Jones, who the Cardinals acquired from the New England Patriots for a second round pick and guard Jonathan Cooper. Jones does an incredible job in harassing quarterbacks as he had 12.5 sacks a season ago. That acquisition could be the one that puts Arizona over the hump. This team will be even hungrier after coming off a loss in the NFC Championship game to Carolina.
The Seattle Seahawks will be the biggest threat to the Cardinals in the NFC West. Seattle is hoping to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since going to back-to-back in Super Bowls 48 and 49. The last time they were in the big game, the lost to the Patriots in a game where they had the ball inside the one-yard line and head coach Pete Carrol elected to pass and not give the ball to Marshawn Lynch. That proved to be costly as Russell Wilson’s pass was picked off by Malcolm Butler to seal the deal.
Seattle has made four-consecutive trips to the postseason and there is no reason to think a fifth-consecutive trip won’t happen. The Legion of Boom will be back in full force, led by arguably the best corner in the game, Richard Sherman. Joining Sherman in the Legion of Boom are safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who can both lay the lumber and cover the secondary. With the loss of outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, Michael Bennett will need to step his game up, but that won’t be a problem.
Along with the Legion of Boom and Bennett, Seattle will also have middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who has had at least 104 tackles in each of his first four seasons. Last year Wagner racked up 9.5 sacks. Fellow linebacker K.J. Wright is also a contributor to the defense as he has 223 tackles and seven forced fumbles in the past two seasons.
The biggest question for the Wilson-led offense is the offensive line. Last year the group allowed 46 sacks. Russell Okung and J.R. Sweezy, who aren’t difference makers, but know the system, both were lost in free agency. Aside from the sacks and not winning the Super Bowl, Wilson enjoyed the 2015 season. He threw for career highs in yards (4,024) and touchdowns (34). He has a ton of weapons to throw to in wide outs Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, a returning Jermaine Kearse and a (hopefully) healthy tight end in Jimmy Graham. With Marshawn Lynch retiring, running back Thomas Rawls will take over the duties. This could cause for Wilson to pass even more, as Rawls hasn’t been fully established yet and the question mark of the offensive line.
The Dallas Cowboys saw Tony Romo get injured yet again, so their chances of winning the NFC took a huge blow, unless rookie quarterback Dak Prescott can carry the load until Romo returns. The Minnesota Vikings also took a blow at quarterback as Teddy Bridgewater suffered a torn ACL last week. Sam Bradford was acquired to replace Bridgewater, but that won’t be enough, even though the defense is good and they have Adrian Peterson. The Washington Redskins will look to win the NFC East for a second-straight season behind quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is in a contract year. Washington doesn’t seem to have all the pieces to contend for a Super Bowl title.