As we look toward the 2016 season, there are a lot of questions facing the NFC South. Over the next few weeks, my esteemed colleagues -- Sander Phillipse of Bucs Nation, J.R. Ella from Canal Street Chronicles, and Brian Beversluis of Cat Scratch Reader -- join me to dissect these topics and establish some expectations for the division this season.
Today we're moving on to the Panthers, and Brian Beversluis of Cat Scratch Reader asked the rest of us what our respective teams need to do to beat Carolina and secure the division crown this season.
Sander Phillipse, Bucs Nation
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could probably beat the Carolina Panthers to win the division, assuming that half the Carolina team comes down with some debilitating but not life-threatening illness. If that for some weird reason does not occur, the Bucs may have some issues actually doing that, but there's at least a plausible scenario: Jameis Winston develops into a star in his second year, Mike Smith gets the most out of players that declined under Lovie Smith, and Roberto Aguayo turns out to actually be that kicker who's worth a second-round pick.
These scenarios could be hamstrung by any number of developments (read: injuries), but they are certainly possible if not likely. Winston had a very good rookie season after a turnover-prone first quarter of the year, and none of Lovie Smith's defensive backs reached the level they had previously played at. Adding Vernon Hargreaves and Brent Grimes will help a lot. Meanwhile, the Panthers didn't improve their team much if at all this offseason -- the inevitable consequence of already having a very good team. The Bucs have enough talent to take the next step and win the division for the first timein ten years -- yes, that's how long its been. They just need everything to fall into place.
JR Ella, Canal Street Chronicles
Carolina had a fantastic 2015 season, one that culminated with the team winning its third NFC South title in a row and getting all the way to the Super Bowl. However there's a little bit of a fool's gold shine to the Panthers' recent NFC South dominance. In 2013, the 12-4 Panthers won the division by one game over the 11-5 Saints in what was a contested division between the two teams all the way to the last game of the season. In 2014, Carolina won what was likely the worst division in the history of professional football, with a 7-8-1 record. Enough said. Last year however was the true dominant year for Carolina, and the division was never in doubt. However, of the three titles in a row, only 2015 was truly uncontested. Because of the fact that in the last three years only the 2015 Panthers felt like a truly dominant team to me, I'm not exactly ready to give the Panthers their fourth consecutive NFC South crown just yet.
Now if we are to be specific about why the Saints could have a chance to dethrone the Panthers in 2016, despite consecutive 7-9 records the past two seasons, New Orleans has played Carolina extremely tough the past three years. In 2014, the Saints had an 18-point win against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium while going 1-1 in the season series. Last year, 15-1 Carolina needed every second in the Superdome to secure a 41-38 win against New Orleans. This is the Saints scoring 38 points against the number two defense in the entire league and Carolina needing 41 points to defeat a team with one of the worst defenses in NFL history.
The Saints' defense is bound to improve from 32nd in the league last year, and with Brees at the helm, New Orleans has always had the ability to score. I expect the Saints to split the season-series with Carolina in 2016 and further exploit a secondary that wasn't very good last season and has now lost its best player. Should New Orleans find a way to sweep Carolina next season, it's absolutely not out of the realm of possibility that the Saints could wrestle that coveted NFC South crown from the Panthers.
Jeanna Thomas, The Falcoholic
Carolina is a tough team. The defense is formidable, and Cam is really difficult to contain because of his unique combination of speed and size. They'll have a healthy Kelvin Benjamin back this season, which should make their offense more dynamic. That defense is going to be a problem no matter what.
The Falcons, on the other hand, are coming off of three consecutive rough seasons. The main thing the Falcons are going to have to do to get back to pre-2013 form this season is protect Matt Ryan adequately. The addition of Alex Mack should help stabilize the interior line, which was a huge problem last season. They also need to get the ground game going with some consistency. That was something they did well at the beginning of last season, and as the run game floundered, the offense became less effective.
Atlanta's pass rush has left a lot to be desired for several seasons. It remains to be seen how offseason additions like Derrick Shelby and rookie De'Vondre Campbell might help generate some pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but that's really the biggest need for this team defensively. That's probably the most necessary element for this Falcons team to be a factor in the race to the top of the NFC South.