First half recap:
The Carolina Panthers have been among the biggest surprises in the NFL this season. Their defense has continued to play stingily, and their offense has been getting it done when needed. Josh Norman is a star corner that is still under appreciated, but one of the best in the game. They are not a flashy team but they just get it done. They have a defense that is full of play makers, including Norman and Luke Kuechly. But now Kony Ealy is coming into his own as a pass rusher and having Jared Allen on the other side is a huge boost to this pass rush. Cam Newton is having one of his best years, and their run game is the best in the league. They have been fine without Kelvin Benjamin, which really surprised me. Corey Brown deserves a lot of credit, he has been a pleasant surprise this season. Greg Olsen is still going strong, and is the key to the passing game. But the keys to the offense are Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert, two running backs that wear you down with their size.
The Atlanta Falcons have won this season on an opportunistic defense and the strength of the Matt Ryan to Julio Jones connection. Add in Devonta Freeman, the breakout star of the year in the entire league, and you have a very high powered offense. In their 5-0 start they barely won against the Eagles, Giants and Redskins and beat the Romo-less Cowboys. Since then they have lost to the Saints, Buccaneers at home and to the hapless 49ers. The passing offense has sputtered as Jones has battled injuries. Despite making some big plays on defense, they still give up a ton of yards and points.
The New Orleans Saints started out horribly at 0-3, but have gone 4-2 since. Drew Brees has shown no signs of slowing down, and it is clear that he and this offense made Jimmy Graham, not the other way around. Brandin Cooks has been great this season and the offense hasn’t missed a beat. The defense has been horrendous though, getting absolutely lit up by many teams, most notably by the Giants in their nail biting 52-49 shootout.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have improved significantly over last season, but have shown they still have a way to go. They were blown out by the Titans and the Panthers, but since then have really looked good, beating the Jaguars and the Falcons in Atlanta. They did choke badly in Washington, but they fought hard against the Giants. Jameis Winston has been good at times this season, despite not having Mike Evans the whole time. This team is on the way up.
Second half outlook:
The Panthers are a lock to win this division, and are on track to win the top seed in the NFC playoffs. They are two games ahead of the Packers, Vikings and Cardinals and have already beaten the Packers. But the question is, can this team go undefeated? Looking at their second half schedule, my answer is—yes they can, but I’m not saying they will. They should beat the Titans next week, but with the way Marcus Mariota is playing and how they looked against Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers the last two weeks, you never know. But they should be favored in the rest of their games this season. Yours truly could see them going undefeated, but they will trip up somewhere along the way.
The Falcons started out really hot but have cooled off in recent weeks. Unfortunately the slate doesn’t get much more forgiving going forward. Next they host Indianapolis to face a Colts team that looks to be gaining its footing, even without Andrew Luck; then host the red hot Vikings. Then they go on the road for three straight against the Buccaneers, Panthers and Jaguars. Then they host Carolina and New Orleans to close the season. Expect an 8-8 finish in their future the way things are going right now.
The Saints go to Washington and then to Houston the next two weeks. Those are two games they must win if they want to get back into playoff contention. Then, Carolina is one of two teams with a winning record they play the rest of the way—the other being Atlanta in week 17. They could go 6-1 the rest of the way and finish 10-6. It wouldn’t be a surprise. They are more than capable of beating the Redskins, Texans, Bucs, Lions, Jags and Falcons. They will be competing with the Rams and Seahawks for that #6 seed.
The Buccaneers will host the Cowboys before traveling to Philadelphia and Indianapolis. Then they come home for two divisional games against the Falcons and Saints. Then they go to St. Louis and then host the Bears before closing their season at Carolina. In the year and a half that Lovie Smith has been the head man in Tampa they have one home win, but they could get at least two more before the year closes. The road games are tough though, but still this team should close the season with six or seven wins.
1. Carolina Panthers
2. New Orleans Saints
3. Atlanta Falcons
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers