1. Carolina Panthers/ Defending NFC South and NFC Champions
Dec 7, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) carries the ball into the endzone for a touchdown in front of several New Orleans Saints defenders during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports
I didn’t even have to tell Saints fans who was #1 on this list, because they KNEW it was coming.
The Panthers of course will be the defending NFC Champions in 2016, after losing the second Super Bowl in their team history, this time to the Denver Broncos.
After the Panthers’ only other Super Bowl appearance, they went 7-9 in 2004 and missed the playoffs. Such a slide seems unlikely with this group, which boasts the MVP, an elite defense and playmakers on both sides of the ball.
The Panthers still look like the team to beat in the NFC South, although it’s tough to envision another 15-win regular season given the slate of opponents. (The NFL will release its full schedule, with times and dates, next month.)
But there’s a reason why the 1972 Dolphins are the only team in the past 43 years to win the Super Bowl a year after losing in the game.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told his players after Super Bowl 50 they could find inspiration in the Broncos, who beat the Panthers two years after getting crushed by the Seahawks in the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl.
But despite what the past 23 years might suggest, Rivera isn’t conceding anything in 2016.
Two of the Panthers’ key players are coming off surgeries. Both Kuechly (torn labrum in left shoulder) and Kelvin Benjamin (torn ACL in left knee) are progressing well, according to team officials.
But the Panthers can’t afford to have either player suffer a setback in his recovery.
Carolina was able to overcome the loss of Benjamin last season until the Super Bowl, when Jerricho Cotchery had three drops and the rest of the receivers (with the exception of Philly Brown) had a hard time getting open. Benjamin is a big-time weapon, particularly in the red zone, who has Newton’s complete trust.
The Panthers won three games early last season when Kuechly was sidelined with a concussion. But they wouldn’t want to go without Kuechly, whose pick-six vs. Seattle’s Russell Wilson was the playoffs tone-setter, for a long stretch in 2016.
The Panthers will play a first-place schedule for the third consecutive season, and will load up on frequent flier miles in the process.
Carolina has three West Coast trips (Seattle, Los Angeles, Oakland), as well as a Super Bowl rematch at Denver. The Panthers will face six teams that made the playoffs last season, including their seventh game in five years against the Seahawks.
But they’ll be facing the Saints twice — a team that gave them complete hell both times that they played, narrowly escaping with wins in Charlotte and in NOLA.
A new rivalry has developed between the Saints and the Panthers; and though not nearly as bitter as the pre-existing feud between the Saints and their hated arch-rivals, the Atlanta Falcons — the games between New Orleans and Carolina are no less intense, whenever they do battle.
The games between the Saints and the Panthers in 2016, could go a long way in determining whether the Saints get a “sniff” at the NFC Playoffs, or not………