The Carolina Panthers dominated the NFC South in 2015, cruising to a 15-1 record and an appearance in Super Bowl 50. Has the rest of the division done enough to catch up to the Panthers, or will they have a repeat performance in 2016?
Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) walks off the field after Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos at Levi
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Prior to the 2013 season, the NFC South was notorious for not allowing a team to repeat as champions. They had not had a repeat champion since the division came into existence in 2002, with the addition of the Houston Texans and the subsequent conference realignment.
After the 2013 season, however, the division has been dominated by the Carolina Panthers. Coming into the 2016 season, they have taken the division crown an unheard of (in this division) three seasons in a row. They took the crown in dominant fashion last season, losing only one game all year before ultimately falling to the Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Will the 2016 season see history repeat itself with Carolina taking home their fourth division title in as many years? Have the rest of the teams in the division done enough to compete with the Panthers and take the crown from them?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a trendy pick coming into the season, thanks in large part to the quick maturation of franchise quarterback Jameis Winston. Has he matured enough to take that next step and lead his team to the playoffs?
The New Orleans Saints, led by their potential Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, have always had the offense. However, they've been historically bad on defense in recent years. Have they done enough to plug the holes on that side of the ball? Read on to find out!
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4. Atlanta Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons are a team that has been frustrating to watch for several seasons now. After winning the division in 2012, the Falcons have floundered the last 3 years, finishing 4-12, 6-10, and 8-8 respectively.
There is so much talent on this team, it's hard to see how they haven't managed to capitalize on it. Matt Ryan may not be the most talented quarterback in the league, but he's better than a lot of fans give him credit for. Julio Jones is still one of the best wide receivers in this league, and the tandem of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman is as dangerous a running attack as there is in the NFL.
The team started off strong in 2015, cruising to a 5-0 record, but stumbled down the stretch, finishing 3-8 to secure their fourth straight season without a winning record.
There has been improvement in the team each of the last three seasons. I don't see that trend continuing in 2016. Atlanta feels like a team that is going to take a step back, though I can't put my finger on exactly why I feel that way.
They have the talent at the skill positions, there is no doubt about that. It's the rest of the squad that falls flat in my eyes. They don't have a great offensive line to protect Matt Ryan. They don't have a great front seven or defensive backs corps to put pressure on opposing offenses.
In a division with the likes of Drew Brees and Cam Newton, if you don't have the tools on defense to stop them and don't have the firepower on offense to hang with them, you're in for a long season. And that's exactly what I think Falcons fans are in for in 2016.
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3. New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees had a tumultuous start to his NFL career, but has found a home with the New Orleans Saints. Since coming to New Orleans and being paired with Sean Peyton, Brees has blossomed into one of the most prolific passers the league has ever seen.
Since arriving in 2006, Drew Brees has surpassed the 5,000 yard passing mark four times, including three straight seasons from 2011-13. He has led the league in passing yards a record six times in that span. He also brought the franchise its first Super Bowl title.
More important than the accolades on the field, though, is what Drew Brees and the success of the Saints has done for the city of New Orleans may be his greatest legacy. After the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, it was the success of the franchise, led by Brees and Peyton that, at least in some small way, breathed new life into the struggling city.
However, for all the good that they have done, the NFL is a "what have you done for me lately" business, and the Saints have struggled mightily in recent years. Drew Brees and his crew have done their part, but they've been hamstrung by historically bad defenses in recent years.
Has the defense improved enough to give the Saints a fighting chance in this division? The answer to that question remains to be seen, obviously, but I lean towards no. There's just too much firepower in this division; I see them struggling yet again.
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2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been a struggling franchise since winning the Super Bowl in 2002. They have only made the playoffs twice since their championship run. They're on their fourth coach in eight years, and haven't finished with a winning record since 2010.
All that being said, things are beginning to look up in Tampa. Thanks in large part to, so far, striking it big with the first pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Jameis Winston, the Bucs are finally trending in the right direction. Could this be the year they buck the trend and finally finish with a winning record? Could they even be on their way to a return to the playoffs?
The playoffs might be a bit of a stretch, as there are a lot of very talented teams in the NFC that they're going to have to fight with. However, a winning record should be well within their sights. Winston struggled at times during his rookie season, but he finished strong. So far in 2016, he looks like he's put those struggles behind him and is continuing to improve.
It's only preseason, so take it with a grain of salt, but I believe in Winston and see good things on the very-near horizon for both him and this Tampa squad.
If this team is allowed to stay together and grow as a cohesive unit, and they are able to avoid major injuries, I see big things on the horizon for Tampa Bay. Maybe not quite yet, but within a year or two. They are a team who are poised to make waves.
Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
1. Carolina Panthers
When Carolina's number one receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, was lost for the season with a knee injury, most pundits thought the season was lost with him. Most thought that Carolina simply didn't have enough weapons around Cam Newton to have success.
Cam, and the rest of the Panthers squad, showed everyone wrong in spectacular fashion. The team came together and shocked everyone, myself included, on their way to a Super Bowl run. Though the result was a disappointment to the team and fans alike, there's plenty of reason for excitement heading into the 2016 season.
First and foremost, they get Kelvin Benjamin back. The fact that Cam Newton was able to lead a team to the Super Bowl with Ted Ginn as his leading wide receiver still astounds me. Having Benjamin back should prove to be a huge boost to the wide receiver squad.
However, it's not all rainbows and sunshine when it comes to Benjamin. His rookie season, though solid, was plagued by dropped passes. It remains to be seen if Benjamin's hand have improved, but they're going to have to if he wants to be a true number one receiver in this league.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Panther did take some hits this off-season. Most notably when they let their top cornerback, Josh Norman, walk away in free agency. The team still has All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, however, and brought in a strong draft class. The defense may take a step back in 2016, but it should still be solid.
Carolina won't finish 15-1 again like they did last season. They will, however, have another strong showing in 2016. Strong enough to wrap up a fourth straight division crown and make yet another playoff appearance in the still-young career of Cam Newton.
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