Wednesday August 31st, 2016

There was a time last season when the Panthers and Falcons were on track for an epic race to the finish line. Carolina started 7–0, Atlanta 6–1, with the two rivals set to play in Weeks 14 and 16.

But the NFC South was decided long before those showdowns occurred, as what began as a two-team slugfest devolved into a one-team runaway. As the Panthers ran off 14 straight wins (before losing to Atlanta), the Falcons hit the skids—a Week 8 overtime loss at home to Tampa Bay touched off a six-game losing streak that culminated in a 38–0 shellacking in Carolina.

The Panthers finished the regular season 15–1; the Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers combined to go 21–27, only the .500 Falcons are even able to pretend that they were in the playoff hunt over the season’s second half.

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The issues for New Orleans and Tampa Bay were not exclusive to their respective defenses, but that makes for a starting point. Sean Payton’s Saints allowed 476 points last season (29.8 per game), worst in the league by a significant margin. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers checked in at 26th in scoring defense, dragged down by seven games in which they coughed up at least 31 points.

The Bucs pulled off several high-profile moves aimed at fixing their defensive woes, signing veterans Robert Ayers, Daryl Smith and Brent Grimes and drafting Vernon Hargreaves and Noah Spence.

The Saints followed suit in drafting defenders during Rounds 1 and 2: DT Sheldon Rankins and S Vonn Bell, respectively. Unfortunately, they then lost Rankins until at least late October due to a broken fibula, and he’ll be joined in street clothes by 2015 second-round OLB Hau’oli Kikaha (torn ACL). The Saints instead will cross their fingers that DT Nick Fairley and LB James Laurinatis, both free-agent additions, can thrive in heavy minutes.

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Atlanta was respectable on defense last season, but it also failed to meet the high expectations that came with hiring former Seahawks D-coordinator Dan Quinn. The pass rush was especially underwhelming—the Falcons managed just 19 sacks, fewest in the NFL. Enter Dwight Freeney, Derrick Shelby and Courtney Upshaw as potential saviors.

Still, even if improvements are made all around, those three defenses will most likely be left looking up at Carolina’s once again. The Panthers have ominous issues at cornerback, but they also return a dominant front seven, led by an elite linebacking corps. Couple that with the league’s top-ranked offense from a year ago, now featuring WR Kelvin Benjamin, and the gap is measurable.

The Panthers wound up winning the South by an astounding seven games last season. The Falcons, Saints and Buccaneers’s first step toward unseating them is simply to be competitive again.

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Favorite: Carolina

This is easy a “favorite” call as there is when assessing the eight divisions. Carolina stands as the clear frontrunner, thanks to last season’s conference title and an enviable amount of returning talent on both sides.

Aside from injury, there really are only three ways to envision a regression from the defending division champs: 1) The rookie cornerbacks falter in a rebuilt, Josh Norman-less secondary; 2) The offensive line issues that popped up during the Super Bowl become a permanent fixture; 3) Cam Newton stumbles backward from Offensive Player of the Year and league MVP to his former inconsistent self.

No. 3 does not seem all that likely, given how brilliant Newton was last season up until the team’s Super Bowl loss. The Panthers rushed for nearly 2,300 yards last season, led by Jonathan Stewart, and now get to plug Benjamin in alongside Devin Funchess, Ted Ginn and Greg Olsen.

The interior O-line trio of guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell and center Ryan Kalil should prevent door No. 2 from leading to doom, either, even if the tackles falter.

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As for the rookie cornerbacks ...

“We told them: ‘We’re going to live and die with you guys. We’re going to give you every opportunity to compete and be part of what we want to do,’” Carolina coach Ron Rivera told USA Today in early August. “And they have responded. They have done a great job.”

There were a few more headaches as August unfolded, though, and the Panthers lined up for preseason games. James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have endured their share of slip-ups playing outside, while Zack Sanchez has been trying to hold off veteran (by this group’s standards) Bene Benwikere in the slot.

The Panthers trust their system to help those youngsters along. They also know that Kawann Short, Kony Ealy, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and others are patrolling the front seven, so opposing quarterbacks will face a challenge finding time to throw in the first place.

If you’re looking for Carolina’s Achilles heel, it likely lies at cornerback. If those rookies rise to the challenge, the Panthers could dominate this division again.

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Dark Horse: Tampa Bay

After five consecutive last-place finishes, the Buccaneers have the talent in place to make some noise. The hope for a breakthrough starts, of course, with second-year QB Jameis Winston. The 2015 No. 1 pick endured the expected rookie ups and downs but left little doubt that he is a player around which Tampa Bay can build for years to come.

Back at Winston’s disposal are WRs Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, as well as RB Doug Martin, who revitalized his sagging career with a 1,400-yard showing last season.

It’s those aforementioned defensive additions, however, that could turn Tampa Bay into at least a wild-card contender. The Buccaneers already had All-Pro talents in DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David. Those two have as much help, on paper, as they ever have had while with the organization.

Standing in the way of Tampa Bay contending: the schedule. The Buccaneers open with trips to Atlanta and Arizona, then play the Rams, Broncos and at Carolina prior to a Week 6 bye. If they can reach that break with three or more wins, they’ll be in it to stay.

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Division MVP: Cam Newton, QB, Panthers

Other names could emerge with this title before 2016 is done—Drew Brees, Julio Jones, Winston, etc. But the chief contender to Newton’s crown comes from within his own locker room, in LB Luke Kuechly. The Panthers boasted a unique, dangerous offensive attack last season but for all the points scored, this is a team that lives and dies on defense. Kuechly is the centerpiece of that unit, a do-everything linebacker with exceptional range.

He still cannot match the overall impact Newton has on the game, week in and week out. Defenses have to account for Newton in ways that maybe one or two other quarterbacks come close to matching. He threw for 35 touchdowns last season, minus his projected No. 1 receiver, and rushed for another 10.

Potential breakout player: Grady Jarrett, DT, Falcons

As concern grows over 2015 first-rounder Vic Beasley’s inability to get to the quarterback, a 2015 fifth-rounder has set the stage to thrive this season. Jarrett was considered almost universally to be a steal when Atlanta found him on Day 3 of last year’s draft, and he is reminding everyone of why during the preseason. The 295-pounder can handle a variety of roles up front, including as an undersized wall at nose tackle, plus can penetrate on passing downs. Jarrett, not Beasley, could wind up being the star of Atlanta’s front seven this year.

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Rookie to watch: Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

Thomas already has wowed this summer, the topper coming in a four-catch, 68-yard performance vs. New England to open the preseason. This could be more of a slow burn since New Orleans has weapons like Willie Snead, Brandin Cooks and TE Coby Fleener to take targets (not to mention RB C.J. Spiller). Snead’s recent uptick in time attacking the seams, though, should free up opportunities for Thomas on the outside. The rookie is the real deal, in an offense built to throw the ball.

Coach with most to prove: Sean Payton

The Saints justifiably made ex-defensive coordinator Rob Ryan into a scapegoat last season, as they headed toward their second straight 7–9 finish. There is less of a buffer now for Payton, who carries with him the added pressure of being one of football’s highest-paid coaches at $8 million per season.

Must-watch divisional game: Carolina at New Orleans, Week 6.

This is the third of three straight games within the division for the Panthers, following their Week 4 trip to Atlanta and Week 5 matchup with Tampa Bay. By the time Carolina leaves New Orleans and heads off on its bye, we should have a good idea of whether or not the rest of the division holds a legitimate contender.

The Panthers and Saints meet again in Week 11, capping off a brutal stretch for New Orleans that also features games against Kansas City, Seattle and Denver, on top of two with Carolina.

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