Halfway through the 2015 NFL season, it looked like it was the Panthers’ year. Powered by a breakout by quarterback Cam Newton, dominant performance from every level of the defense, and emergence of several under-the-radar starters, Carolina flirted with perfection, finishing 15-1 and reaching their second Super Bowl in franchise history. We know now that it wasn’t meant to be, as the Panthers were throttled by the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50, but Carolina has to be the favorite to win the next Super Bowl, right?
Fast forward to current day. A couple weeks removed from the NFL draft and months from the free agent frenzy, the Panthers have lost ground on their NFC counterparts. All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman had his franchise tag rescinded and is now in Washington, Jared Allen retired and the Panthers didn’t get any better in free agency or the draft. The Panthers will still be in the Super Bowl hunt, but after this offseason, they are no longer overwhelming favorite or top team in the NFC. And that will make the battle for the NFC even more epic and thrilling.
While Carolina did zip to get better, two teams behind them made leaps and bounds. I’m talking about the Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings. Arizona was ransacked 49-15 in their conference championship bout with the Panthers, but the game was over from the beginning and Carson Palmer (six turnovers in the game) is much better than his performance in the game indicates. The Cardinals are seething and ready for revenge, and they, unlike the Panthers, used the offseason to reload. Arizona has no glaring weaknesses, but they were still aggressive and greatly improved the pass rush and offensive line. Their surprising trade for New England defensive end Chandler Jones gives them the premier pass rusher they needed, and in the draft the Cards selected another talented young player, Robert Nkemdiche. Guard Evan Mathis brings experience and stability to a unit that surprised in 2015 but was still shaky. The past couple offseasons, Arizona has hit on a ton of moves, but if they hit on these three, they’ll be nearly unstoppable. With so much talent on both sides of the ball and all the pieces in place, the Cardinals, not the Panthers, are the favorites in the NFC West.
The best young team in the NFC, the Minnesota Vikings, showed last season that they are a force to be reckoned with and solidified their roster for a deep playoff run this year. Vikings GM Rick Spielman ruled the draft, selecting two talented players in receiver Laquon Treadwell and corner Mackensie Alexander that are instant starters that fill needs on the team. The Vikings didn’t have any headline-worthy additions in free agency and instead expertly added depth. Minnesota now has the blueprint of a Super Bowl contender- a ground-and-pound attack with Adrian Peterson, a fierce defense that has Pro Bowlers on every level, a brilliant football mind in coach Mike Zimmer and a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater that, if he takes it to the next level, can lead the team to postseason glory. The Vikings were robbed of a playoff win last year when kicker Blair Walsh misfired from 27 yards out in the final seconds. If Carson Palmer isn’t at full power for Arizona come playoff time, the Vikes would be my pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Both squads have lost a step recently, but the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks are still in the mix. With Aaron Rodgers as the quarterback, the Packers are never entirely out, though last season the Packers were a train-wreck for half of last season. Green Bay didn’t do much to improve, but an offseason to regroup and refocus will aid them as they try to steal back the NFC North crown. Seattle has Russell Wilson at quarterback and most of their defensive stars still on the roster, but with the departure of running back Marshawn Lynch and a change in philosophy, the Seahawks are not the team they were in the Super Bowl. The Packers and Seahawks are weakening, but they are dangerous and have potential.
Any other teams in the NFC that could make a run? Count the Dallas Cowboys as a possible contender. The rushing attack added Ezekiel Elliott and operates behind the league’s best offensive line, so if quarterback Tony Romo stays healthy we could see the league’s best offense in Dallas. Romo’s health and the defense are the big question marks in Big D. Under general manager Scot McCloughan, Washington is moving in the right direction and could build upon their NFC East title if quarterback Kirk Cousins becomes a franchise player. Young quarterbacks Jameis Winston and Jared Goff lead two playoff-worthy rosters in Tampa and Los Angeles, respectively, and could play spoiler in the playoffs. Chicago is also pointed in the right direction in their second year with John Fox as head coach and did a fine job with free agency. The Eagles, Giants, Lions, Saints, Falcons, and 49ers can probably be written off as Super Bowl threats, though one of those squads could sneak into the playoffs.
So where does that put the Panthers? Behind Arizona, for sure, but the Panthers hold the edge over the Vikings based on what we’ve seen from Cam Newton against what we’ve seen from Teddy Bridgewater.
The three-team race, between Arizona, Carolina, and Minnesota- with a dark horse like Dallas or Green Bay in the background- is the number one reason to be excited for the upcoming NFL season, even though it is still a couple months away. If those teams are firing all cylinders during the playoffs, we’ll have three to four Super Bowl worthy teams battling for one spot in the Super Bowl. That would be epic.