Panther quarterback Cam Newton looks to avenge his team’s Super Bowl loss tonight in Denver. (Photo Courtesy of www.sportingnews.com)
Alexander J. Salucco
The NFL season is already shaping up to give everyone a headache. Suspension, injuries trades are already prevalent and position battles are in full swing. It all starts tonight with a Super Bowl rematch between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos.
AFC East – Even with Tom Brady sitting out the first four games due to suspension, I think it is safe to say that the New England Patriots will win their eighth straight division title this year. I expect Jimmy Garoppolo to be more than serviceable in the first quarter of the season, but opening the season against the Arizona Cardinals is a tough task. The Patriots fall in Arizona but take the next three as trade talks will be looming if Garoppolo plays well.
It should be smooth sailing for the Pats, but weeks 14, 15 and 16 will be a test for the boys from Foxboro. That is when they will play the Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos and New York Jets over a 13-day period. An AFC East wild card team seems unlikely, but the Buffalo Bills have the best chance.
AFC West – We see it every year – players win a Super Bowl and get money hungry. The Denver Broncos lost Brock Osweiler, Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan to free agency. They do bring back a talented receiving core, but who will throw them the ball? Trevor Siemian – who? Exactly.
Despite the question mark behind center, the defense, led by Von Miller, and skill players that they have coming back should be enough to hold off the Oakland Raiders – but watch out for those guys. Derek Carr has something going with Amari Cooper and it seems like the front office in Oakland finally has direction again. I give them a nod for the final wild card spot in the AFC.
AFC North – They killed my prediction last year because of injuries and suspensions – and this year may be no different. The Pittsburgh Steelers will have to do without Le’Veon Bell for the first three weeks and deep threat Martavis Bryant for the whole season. Ben Roethlisberger is always good to miss a few games as well, so they are due for a healthy season, right? I sure hope so.
Despite the multitude of problems on defense, if Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown can stay on the field together, I do not see any team being able to stop them from scoring.
AFC South – The Houston Texans will win the AFC South. The Indianapolis Colts have a turnover machine at quarterback and need to clean house, the Tennessee Titans have promise but they are a few years out and the Jacksonville Jaguars are, well, they are the Jaguars.
We all know about J.J. Watt and the defense, but this team has made improvements on the other side of the ball. Whether you think Brock Osweiler is a franchise quarterback or not, he is an improvement over Ryan Mallet and Brian Hoyer. Both of them displayed it is not hard to throw to DeAndre Hopkins and they will also have newly acquired running back Lamar Miller at their disposal.
NFC East – With Tony Romo injured, again, the Dallas Cowboys will have to rely on rookie starters at both quarterback and running back. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot have showed that they belong in this league, but with the growing pains that go along with being a rookie, they will inevitably struggle to adjust. The question is not ‘who will win the east?’ It is ‘who will lose the least?’
As always, this division is a toss-up and I would not be surprised if the winner ends up 8-8. I am going to have to go with the Giants – the offense is far too impressive and the defensive additions of Olivier Vernon and Janoris Jenkins should take this team to the playoffs.
NFC West – The L.A. Rams bandwagon is filling up, and rightfully so. They have a stellar defense and a bright future – but Todd Gurley and a rookie signal caller can only get you so far. They might find themselves with a wild card berth, but they’ll have to be content with the second slot – the Seattle Seahawks have the first locked up. Bruce Arians has built a monster in Arizona and I would be surprised if they do not make it as far as the NFC Championship game.
After an impressive rookie campaign, running back David Johnson plans on taking the league by storm with the help of Carson Palmer and a core of receivers that could be the best in the NFC. The most complete team in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals, take the NFC West.
NFC North – The Green Bay Packers are going to run away with the division this year. We all know that Aaron Rodgers is a bad man, but if Teddy Bridgewater did not go down for the year after an ACL injury I would be singing to a different tune. The Packers also have the easiest schedule this year with their opponents combining for a winning percentage of only .457 last season. I do not trust these guys in the playoffs though.
Aaron Rodgers saw his touchdowns, quarterback rating and total qbr (total quarterback rating) plummet last year and Eddie Lacy looked mediocre at best – seeing his numbers drop drastically from the year before. Could you blame it on the loss of Jordy Nelson? Sure, but I am not certain that Nelson will be himself after coming off ACL surgery. He certainly will not match his numbers of 98 receptions, over 1,500 yards and 13 touchdowns from his 2014 campaign.
NFC South – Former Connector Sports Editor Kyle Gaudette knows how much I did not like the Panthers last year – this year is no different. They will still win the division, though. Getting Kelvin Benjamin back will be an addition, but the offense has drastically changed since he went down. The defense took a hit losing Josh Norman and I do not know how good Cam Newton is going to be now that he will not be “dabbing.”
All joking aside I do not consider the Panthers title contenders – not until Newton decides he actually wants to dive for a ball when a Super Bowl is on the line.
AFC division winners: Patriots, Steelers, Broncos and Texans
AFC wild card teams: Raiders and Bengals
NFC division winners: Cardinals, Packers, Panthers and Giants
NFC wild card teams: Seahawks and Buccaneers
Super Bowl prediction: Cardinals over Patriots