The NFL season, if you can believe this, begins really soon. We are 16 days away from official kickoff, with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Thus, every Tuesday and Friday until then, I'll be previewing the whole NFL, division-by-division. Obviously, much will change between now and the first week of the season, so just assume that I've taken all those future events under consideration in each of these previews. Let's go with that.
I've drawn on all sorts of resources in these previews, but like anyone who writes about football and wants to get it right, I've weighed heavily on Football Outsiders and their Football Outsiders Annual, which you should purchase if you really want to know what's going on.
4. New Orleans Saints (Projected Record: 6-10)
Eventually, the wheels have to fall off the Saints, right? They've had three losing seasons in a row, but they haven't lost double-digit games since 2005. The Saints have been edging up to the abyss for a few years now, but they've never quite fallen all the way in.
The problem with the Saints has always been that their defense has never been able to hold up its end of the bargain, despite the offense being in the top five of the NFL for several years now. As Football Outsiders points out, "No other team in our table of the top five offenses since 2014 has even missed the playoffs once; the Saints have missed the playoffs every year." The frustrating part of this is the struggles of that defensive unit have cost the Saints a half-decade of opportunities, despite substantial investments. The offense can't keep this up forever. It's amazing enough that it has kept it up this far.
Brees turned 38 years old in January, and while we're all astounded by what Tom Brady does every year, we're oddly unmoved by Brees' perpetual genius. He has led the NFL in passing yards three years in a row, and five of the last six seasons. He set a career in attempts and completions last season, categories he has now led the NFL in five different times. He completed 70 percent of his passes for the first time in five years. And he did all this with a receiving core that would be considered middling with almost any other quarterback. Brees is two years away from passing Payton Manning for all-time passing yards. And yet he's still never won an MVP Award and got passed over for the Pro Bowl by Dak Prescott last year.
With Brees doing this, the Saints have still had three losing seasons in a row. The defense isn't any better, and he's older and has to at least take a tiny step back at some point. (Right?) The Saints have wasted so many brilliant years from Brees so far. Eventually, there won't be any left. Then what?
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Projected Record: 8-8)
It's easy to see why everyone is excited about the Bucs this year, particularly on offense. They have surrounded Jameis Winston -- who is now in his third season and expected to make the superstar leap forward -- with weapons. They brought in DeSean Jackson, a deep threat that's ideal for Dirk Koetter's big-play offense. O.J. Howard is one of those monster athletic tight ends that every fan base believes is going to be the missing ingredient to turn their offense into the mid-'90s Cowboys, or, for that matter, the current New England Patriots. Combine this new high-powered offense with an improving defense, especially the pass defense, and you've got something, right?
Well, maybe. This division may quietly be the best in football, top to bottom, which raises the level of difficulty. But it's also worth noting that Winston might not exactly be ready to take the mantle of Next Great American Quarterback either. For as impressive as Winston looked in his rookie season, he didn't take the dramatic step forward last year the way many thought he would. His touchdowns and completion percentage were up slighty, but his interception percentage was way up, to the point that it might have cost the Buccaneers a game or two. And he might have even deserved more turnovers than he had. Winston has tons of talent, obviously, but he is not always the most efficient quarterback. And having this many new weapons seems likely to spur him into more mistakes, not fewer.
You could still probably get away with that, considering Winston's talent and the talent around him. (Brett Favre made the playoffs pretty often, you know.) But even with all of this, Winston is still probably the worst quarterback in a stacked division, and it's certainly a question whether the Buccaneers' defense can stop the Falcons, Panthers and Saints enough to let Winston and company outscore them. There's little wiggle room for the Buccaneers, which is a tough position to put a young, turnover-prone quarterback in. The Buccaneers thought they were a year away last year. The guess here is that they're still a year away now.
2. Carolina Panthers (Projected Record: 12-4)
All told, I won't soon forget the opening game of the 2016 season. After yet another NFL offseason full of discussion of CTE and concussions and the brutal nature of America's game, the Denver Broncos went out and made football look as violent and repulsive as it can be. The clear, obvious strategy for the game was "knock Cam Newton's brain against his skull as often as possible so that he is too confused and addled to win a football game." As I wrote at the time:
Broncos decided that their best way to win is to launch themselves at the head of the Panthers' most important player -- perhaps the most important player -- in order to concuss him to the point that it was difficult for him to understand what was happening around him. They achieved this by taking every opportunity, within the rules or outside them, to rattle his brain against his skull as brutally as they could, in a way that encourages a disease that may someday kill him. It worked. They won. It's a winning strategy. Expect every team to try it. It can help your team win too. Get excited. The NFL's back."
I know that's a little dark for a obligatory team preview, but hey, that's the sport.
Newton was never the same the rest of the season, and the Panthers weren't either. So this year is the pivotal test: Is Cam going to be Cam again? Newton remains an electric, transcendent, generational talent … but not other teams can launch themselves at his head and not worry they'll get punished the same way they would if they went after, say, Tom Brady. It seems odd to say, "Cam Newton could dominate football if he could avoid the signature event of football," but it's true: Newton needs to avoid getting hits in the head to be great again.
Lots of signs point to a Panthers' rebound. They caught a lot of bad luck last year, and even with Newton's struggles, they were a scary team late. This might well be the best team in the division, and maybe even the NFC this year. But Newton has to stay upright. It would be difficult enough to if there wasn't a whole league gunning for him. But there is.
1. Atlanta Falcons (Projected Record: 13-3)
All right, all right, we're not going to get into that Super Bowl except to ask one question: Which direction do they go from here? Do they go, say, the Kansas City Royals route, to come so close to a championship and respond by being even better next year and making sure that, this time, the opportunity doesn't pass them by? Or do they do the Panthers-loss-to-the-Patriots fashion, to come that close and then whither, turning that special season into a one-off that becomes just another what-if in history?
Here's a bet for the former. Sure, the Falcons lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but even Shanahan joked at times that it would be difficult not to score a lot of points with this much talent. That talent is all back, and while there might not be the kismet that turned the offense into such an unstoppable force in 2016, this team is still going to score a ton of points. And the offensive explosion last year disguised that the defense was starting to make some strides late, and even looked good in the Super Bowl … well, for a little while.
You can't overlook the collapse potential of the Falcons: That was a lot to go through last year. But this is still a fantastic offense, with a young, improving defense, and a desire to erase the horror of early February 2017. The Falcons have a new stadium, a new spotlight and a ton to make up for. This might go against everything we think we know about Atlanta sports, but … the wager here is that they step up rather than recede.
Friday: The AFC West
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