Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers will have a tough time repeating as NFC South champions
The Seattle Seahawks may be the defending Super Bowl champions, but parity reigns supreme in the NFL. Don’t believe me? The past five Super Bowls have featured 10 different teams. Last season, 11 teams won 10 or more games, while 12 accomplished this feat in 2012. Only six teams reached the 10-win plateau in both seasons, meaning 17 different teams have posted double-digit victories in the past two years. There’s also this handy graphic from last season.
No matter how you define it, parity appears to be one of the factors that are shaping the league. So in the spirit of the NFL also meaning “Not For Long,” here are five teams that enjoyed success last season that could end up taking a step or two backwards this fall.
2013 Record: 10-6 (missed playoffs)
Green Bay won the NFC North with an 8-7-1 mark while a 10-6 Arizona team was left out of the playoffs. That’s what happens when you play in the NFC West, the NFL’s toughest division and home to the reigning Super Bowl champions. The Cardinals actually upgraded their offensive line in the offseason, a major need, but it’s what has happened on the other side of the ball that has me concerned about Bruce Arians’ team.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby, the team’s best defender, left as a free agent, while Daryl Washington was suspended for all of 2014 by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for another violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. John Abraham, another linebacker and the team leader in sacks in 2013, also could end up facing league discipline following another alcohol-related incident over the summer. The biggest blow of all, however, came in the middle of training camp when Pro Bowl defensive end Darnell Dockett tore the ACL in his right knee, ending his season before it started.
Dansby’s loss was going to be hard enough to overcome, but couple that with Dockett’s season-ending injury as well as Washington and Abraham’s off-field woes, and this defense looks considerably different than the one that finished sixth overall in yards allowed last season. Even though the offense may be improved, it doesn’t change the fact that Arizona is working with a short-handed defense, resides in the NFC West and must deal with a schedule that includes crossover games against the AFC West. All of this doesn’t bode well for a team that won 10 games last year and still missed the playoffs.
2013 Record: 12-4 (NFC South champions, lost to San Francisco 23-10 in Divisional Round)
Carolina went from 7-9 in 2012 to 12-4 and NFC South champions last season. The Panthers accomplished this impressive turnaround thanks to the league’s No. 2-ranked defense, an MVP-caliber performance from Cam Newton and an aggressive, risk-taking mindset that started at the top with head coach Ron Rivera. Despite the disappointing home playoff loss to the 49ers to end the season, the Panthers appeared to be a team on the rise. Then the offseason came.
Several key players departed as free agents and stalwart left tackle Jordan Gross retired. Carolina brought in some new faces through both free agency and the draft, but this still remains a team with plenty of question marks. Not a single wide receiver on the roster caught a pass for the Panthers last season, putting a ton of pressure on first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin and the veterans that were added. The offensive line also is in a state of flux and one of the stingiest defenses must replace two starters in the secondary.
There’s still plenty of talent on the roster, starting with Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but in many ways this is not the same team that held off New Orleans for the top spot in the division last season. Speaking of the Saints, they should be among the NFC’s top teams yet again, while Atlanta figures to be better if for any other reason expected better health. And don’t forget about Tampa Bay, a team that’s made plenty of changes, starting with new head coach Lovie Smith.
Repeating as division champs was going to be a tough task for Carolina regardless. However, the personnel losses and the likelihood that the NFC South will be much more competitive this season only adds to the challenge that’s facing Rivera’s team. One-year wonder may not be a fair descriptor for the Panthers, but that’s how it could end up looking in the win-loss column.
2013 Record: 11-5 (AFC South champions, lost to New England 43-22 in Divisional Round)
Hear me out. I am not saying that Indianapolis will free-fall to the bottom of its division. Nor am I saying that the Colts won’t win their second straight AFC South crown. What I am saying, however, is that this is not a team without its share of warts and don’t discount the idea that the three other teams in the division won’t all be better this season.
Andrew Luck alone gives Indianapolis an enormous advantage over the rest of the AFC South. He’s proved that he belongs among the elite starting quarterbacks in the NFL and a worthy successor to Peyton Manning’s Colts legacy. Luck (just like Manning) can’t do it alone, however, and even with the healthy return of wide receiver Reggie Wayne and tight end Dwayne Allen, along with the addition of wideout Hakeem Nicks, this offense still has question marks when it comes to running back and the offensive line. Inconsistency has characterized the former position, while injuries have already impacted the latter. Don’t forget Luck was sacked 32 times last season.
Then there’s the defense. The Colts may have won 11 games last season, but the defense gave up 87 points and more than 900 yards in two playoff games. On top of that, Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea is now in San Francisco, All-Pro linebacker Robert Mathis is suspended for the first four games, and little impact should be expected from this year’s defensive draft class.
No one’s mistaking Houston, Jacksonville or Tennessee as Super Bowl contenders this season, but the Colts should expect more resistance from their divisional peers. That combined with a tough schedule that includes crossover games against the AFC North as well as matchups with Denver and New England could translate into a few less wins for Luck and company.
Kansas City Chiefs
2013 Record: (11-5, lost to Indianapolis 45-44 in AFC Wild Card)
All Andy Reid did was take a Kansas City team that went 2-14 in 2012 and turn it into an 11-5 playoff participant that featured dynamic playmakers on both sides of the ball. To that end, All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles signed a contract extension in July and the defense features a Pro Bowler on each level. So what’s not to like about the Chiefs this season?
For starters, the offensive line will be practically new, as three starters left in free agency, including left tackle Branden Albert. Eric Fisher, 2013’s No. 1 overall pick, remains, but injuries impacted his rookie campaign and the jury is still out on how effective he will be as a pro. Two other linemen will miss the first four games of the season due to NFL suspensions. With a lack of playmakers at wide receiver, Kansas City relies heavily on Charles and the running game and at best, the offensive line figures to be a work in progress.
The defense is largely intact, but after dominating the opposition the first half of the season, this unit regressed dramatically the rest of the way. The low point to the decline came in the form of the 45 points and 513 yards surrendered to Indianapolis in the one-point Wild Card loss in which Kansas City coughed up a 38-10 lead in the third quarter. Again, there’s plenty of talent in place, but is this unit the one that wreaked havoc early or gave up nearly 30 points per game over the final eight contests?
And last, but certainly not least, there’s the schedule. Last season, Kansas City feasted on the AFC South and NFC East, two of the weaker divisions. This fall, while the AFC East is still top-heavy with New England leading the way, the NFC West is another story entirely. That’s a big reason why the Chiefs are playing the seventh-toughest slate in the league and another reason why I think Reid’s team will be hard-pressed to get back to double-digit wins.
San Diego Chargers
2013 Record: 9-7 (Lost to Denver 24-17 in AFC Divisional Round)
Mike McCoy snapped San Diego’s three-year playoff drought in his first season at the helm, a turnaround fueled by an impressive bounce-back season from Philip Rivers. With Rivers re-establishing himself as a franchise quarterback and Chuck Pagano overseeing a young and improving defense, the Chargers have the appearance of a team on the upswing.
However, let’s not forget that San Diego needed a four-game winning streak in December and help from some other teams (and perhaps the officials depending on whom you ask) to sneak into the playoffs in the first place. The Chargers can’t count on the same lucky bounces and breaks, if you will, again this season. The defense also isn’t without its weaknesses, particularly stopping the pass and pressuring the quarterback. Remember, San Diego has to play Denver twice and also will face New England this fall.
And besides the Broncos and the Patriots, the Chiefs also have the 49ers, Cardinals, Rams and Seahawks on tap. So not only does San Diego have the privilege of playing the defending Super Bowl champions and the reigning AFC top dog, it also gets the two other teams that played in their respective conference title games, another that won 10 games last season and a team that should boast one of the NFL’s toughest defenses this season. And that doesn’t include the Chiefs (play twice), Ravens or Jets.
Hopefully McCoy and the Chargers enjoyed their honeymoon season, because Year 2 may not produce as many positive results, at least as far as the win column goes.