The “Sports Page 1 Elite” Staff Writer’s NFL Preview: NFC South

Carolina Panthers

Michael Eccleston predicts 13-3 division champs.

Yes, Carolina will regress from 15 wins to 13 because, well, it just isn’t very likely that happens two seasons in a row. Outside of Josh Norman signing with the Washington Redskins, it’s pretty much the same story here. They still have the reigning MVP of the league in Cam Newton, they get top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin back after he missed all of last year because of injury, and they still have Greg Olsen, Ted Ginn Jr., and Devin Funchess on the offensive side of the ball. Runningback Jonathan Stewart will continue to be solid because of the dual-threat Newton is. On the defensive side of the ball, they’re still led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. The addition of Shaq Thompson will help as well. I expect more of the same from the Panthers who will be hungry after losing to the Denver Broncos in this past Super Bowl. They take this division convincingly. Michael Eccleston 

Ralph predicts 14-2, division champs.

The Panthers will once again finish at the top of this division, for good reason, Cam Newton is the second best running back on the team behind starter Jonathan Stewart.On any given play Cam can run for the first down yardage or more.

The Panthers front 7 is still intact and just as dominant as last year.

The Panthers get Kelvin Benjamin back, the wide receiver added 1000 plus yard in 2014, something the Panthers missed last year when KB went down with an injury in pre-season. Devin Funchess and Greg Olsen carried most of the load last season but now they get the man back.

One glaring weak spot on the Panthers offense is the tackle position, we seen Von Miller absolutely destroy them last year in the championship game. If the tackles can’t set the edge against formidable pass rushers, it may be their achilles heel.

Finally, we all know Josh Norman left the team and Charles Tillman retired. the Panthers tried to fill in the spots with draft picks but I don’t think it will be enough. The young DB’s will benefit from a very strong front 7 to help cover their weaknesses, but eventually they may be exposed.

Still, the Panthers have way too many weapons to not have a strong season. Ralph 

Scott Brown predicts 12-4, division champs.

The Carolina Panthers finished last year 15-1 and won the NFC championship. But, they could have issues with their secondary after losing Josh Norman. They did draft Vernon Butler improving their pass rush. But, Greg Olsen, one of the best tight ends in the league is suffering back issues in the pre-season. Scott Brown 

Antwon predicts 11-5 division champs 

The Panthers are coming off one of the best seasons in the teams franchise history with a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. Cam Newton was spectacular in 2015 as he pulled out all the stops on his way to the NFL MVP award. Their defense took some losses this offseason but they still should be on top of this division at seasons end. Look for them to make another run at the big game. Antwon 

Brian Jones predicts 11-5, division champs.

 Although they won’t run roughshod over this division (or the NFL) like they did last season, Carolina won’t have any problems repeating as division champion. Cam Newton is a year wiser and I believe he’ll learn from the Super Bowl loss and grow from it on the field (press conferences are another story). Kelvin Benjamin returns from injury to add another weapon on offense and the defense should be in the top 5 again. They’ll win the division with relative ease. Brian Jones

J. Russell Zinn predicts 14-2, division Champs, number 1 NFC seed.

Add one top flight number 1 wr. Subtract one top tier system cb. Where does that leave us? Still the best team in football. It took a perfect game plan by an all time defense to stop them in the superbowl. Now they are angry. They have the best running qb ever, who happens to be the 2nd best qb in the league. They are on a mission, they have a tough schedule they could end up only 11-5 with it….but they are also capable of going undefeated with it. I think they’ll lose 2, only because they know now they want to keep something in the tank for the playoffs. Good luck to Green Bay or Arizona, they’ll need a perfect game to subplant Carolina as the NFC team in the superbowl this season. J.Russell Zinn

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 

Michael Eccleston predicts 9-7, second in division 

The Bucs will be a very interesting team to watch this season. Jameis Winston had a very good rookie year throwing for over 4,000 yards. That doesn’t happen very often. Third year wide receiver Mike Evans looks to bounce back from a somewhat disappointing season in 2015 dropping from 10 touchdowns the year before to 3 last season. Running Back, Doug Martin, was dreadful in 2014, but came back to life last season. I expect Martin to continue to have success as Winston progresses. Defensively, they are led by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and young outside linebacker Lavonte David. They also have an interesting group of cornerbacks with Alterraun Verner, Brent Grimes, and one of the best cornerbacks in the draft in Vernon Hargreaves. This is a young, upcoming team with a new head coach and as Winston continues to get more comfortable, I expect them to improve a lot, especially considering I don’t trust either the Saints or the Falcons… Michael Eccleston 

J.Russell Zinn’s prediction 97, second in division. 

This is a team that will rise faster then anyone is ready for. Why? Jameis Winston. He is part of the plethora of megatalented young qbs to hit the league in the last 4 years (only the early 80s have seen the NFL blessed with so much talent at the position at once) Winston may be the best pure passer of the bunch. Tampa will make some noise. They aren’t good enough to make the playoffs in the tough NFC but will be in contention until the last snap of the season. J.Russell  Zinn

Scott Brown predicts 3-13, last in division 

Tampa Bay finished last season at 6-10. Their offense struggled in pre-season joint practices with Jacksonville and Cleveland. They did upgrade their defense with Robert Ayers, Daryl Smith and Brent Grimes. They did nothing to improve a bad offensive line. Scott Brown

Antwon predicts 8-8, 3rd in division 

The Bucs were a very competitive team last season despite their 6-10 record. Jameis Winston played about as well as any rookie last season leading this team and assuring them a bright future at the QB position. Dirk Koetter brings his wide open offensive scheme to this new team and it should make them fun to watch with the twin towers they have at receiver. There defense is solid so look for them to continue to improve and become a solid contender down the road. Antwon 

Ralph predicts 7-9, 2nd in division.

I will admit, in writing this preview I initially wrote off the Bucs, until I looked over their record from last year and took into account their off-season moves. Coach Lovie Smith is now, gone. Whether that is a good or bad thing, we don’t know yet.

Lovie being a defensive minded coach didn’t help the Bucs defense last year though. Mike Smith will try to put the talented players into a scheme that can win. Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter will get his shot at leading the team this season.

The Bucs will rely heavily on Winston and his two giant wide receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson to move the ball down the field. Also featured is the running back duo of Doug Martin and Chris Sims. The problem is those two have to run behind a horrible offensive line. Ralph

Brian Jones predicts 8-8, 2nd in division.

Another team that has the potential to be either one of the biggest surprises in the league or one of its biggest disappointments. Jameis Winston looks like he’s ready to take things to the next level but as long as Doug Martin isn’t consistently producing and Mike Evans not consistently dropping balls Winston’s growth will only go so far. The defense has to improve, especially the pass defense. The pieces are there to make the playoffs in 2016 but I think they’ll fall just short of that goal. Brian Jones 

New Orleans Saints

J.Russell Zinn’s prediction  5-11, 3rd in division.

I love Drew Brees. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him in person, he a great guy. I’ve been a fan of him since his days at Purdue. Thing is he’s 37 years old, with a 5’11 1/2″ 209 pound frame. The human body can only take so many hits from behemoth NFL linebackers and d lineman. The smaller the frame the less hits it takes. Brett Favre and Tom Brady are freaks, the exceptions to the rule. Most qbs can’t physically play after their 37th birthday. Maybe he will be able to wring another year out of his body. I’m not betting on it. Plus their defense couldn’t stop anyone in the big ten much less the NFL. Things aren’t going to be easy in the big easy. Ending of storybook careers seldom are. J.Russell Zinn

Brian Jones predicts 7-9, tied for 3rd in division. 

 The good news? Drew Brees is back again. The bad news? The Saints’ defense is back again. They have tried to make some improvements on defense but they still aren’t going to be able to stop teams enough to contend. Brandin Cooks will be the same explosive weapon he’s been but he’ll have little help otherwise on offense. Brees will also turn in another MVP-caliber season as well. The defense needs retooling (again) and playing in a division with 3 teams that can put 35 on you with ease is bad news. Look for offensive fireworks and defensive letdown in the Bayou this season. Brian Jones

Ralph predicts 6-10, last place in the division

Drew Brees is not immortal and one of these years he won’t be there to carry the team, But for the time being, he’s still throwing touchdowns. Brees favorite target is Brandin Cooks, who’s very much a threat. Mark Ingram needs to stay healthy for this team to win games.

The defensive unit was so horrible last year they fired the defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan. Also gone is Brandon Browner, thank goodness. With the subtraction of Browner alone, the defense has to improve.

The offense is not the problem on this team, anchored by a strong offensive line. The biggest problem is the defense, it doesn’t look like the Saints did much to remedy that. Ralph

Antwon predicts 7-9, last In division

 Sean Payton and Drew Brees are ready to put the ball in the air again this season but can their defense hold opponents long enough to get some wins. Dennis Allen is the new coordinator in the Big Easy and players seem to be buying into his scheme but can they produce this year or continue to struggle? One thing for sure this will be a tight race all season. Antwon.

Scott Brown predicts 9-7, second in the division. 

New Orleans finished the 2015 season 7-9. They have a solid running game with Mark Ingram, Tim Hightower and CJ Spiller. They improved their interior pass rushing with free agent Nick Fairley and draft pick Sheldon Rankins. They added an offensive weapon in Coby Fleener, but still have issues with their secondary. Scott Brown 

Michael Eccleston predicts 6-10 last in division 

Yes, those same overrated New Orleans “we have a lot of talent on offense and we have Drew Brees” Saints that we all expect to improve every year but then are disappointed when they don’t. That team. Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. That has been established. Mark Ingram is expected to step up as the full time starting runningback for the first time since he won the Heisman trophy in 2009. No, but seriously this time…. I expect Brandin Cooks to continue to improve as a very formidable number one receiver, and I also think that tight end Coby Fleener will have a career year with a team that will use him like the large, athletic player that he is. Wide receiver Willie Snead expects to see a lot more attention this season after a promising end of last year, and rookie Michael Thomas will get his feet wet in this offense that relies heavily on the passing attack. And then there’s the defense…….. Yep, that’ll about do it for the New Orleans Saints. Michael Eccleston 

Atlanta Falcons

Ralph predicts 5-11, last in the division.

This year the Falcons don’t get to pad their record with easy wins against the NFC East. Gone is Devin Hester and Roddie White. As replacement the Falcons signed Mohamed Sanu. Yes, they still have Julio Jones but that won’t be enough to save this team.

The running backs are plagued by drops, even though they run behind one of the highest ranked lines in the NFL.

The defense surely won’t scare anyone, filled with young talent, they have yet to prove to be formidable.

The clock will strike midnight and this team will turn back into the pumpkin they really are. Ralph. 

Scott Brown predicts 8-8, 3rd in the division.

The Atlanta Falcons finished last year 8-8. During the off season the acquired Alex Mack in hopes of solidifying their center position. Vic Beasley Jr. should help improve their pass rush now that he is healthy and its a good thing since the Falcons were the worst team in the NFL at both sacks and pressuring the quarterback last year. They didn’t really upgrade by signing wide receiver Mohamed Sanu. With a tough schedule they will finish the same as last year. Scott Brown

Antwon predicts 9-7 second in division 

The Falcons started off a red hot 5-0 last season but their Achilles heel which is their defensive unit would be their downfall and end their season an average 8-8. Coach Dan Quinn finally has all the pieces he wants in his defensive scheme and now he looks to put it all together. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman were the lone bright spot for the team and put up outstanding numbers but they could not stop the slide. Atlanta picked up some good talent this offseason but can they overcome a brutal regular season schedule? We shall see. Antwon 

Brian Jones predicts 7-9, tied for 3rd in division

After starting 5-0 and being considered a Super Bowl contender before they went into a freefall and wound up 8-8. Was this an abberation or a pattern? I think it’s a pattern. Offensively, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will produce and put up numbers but who else will help them? The run game hit a wall and the defense played with concrete shoes the last portion of the season. They added some pieces in free agency and the draft but it’s not going to be enough for the Dirty Birds to fly high in 2016. Brian Jones 

J.Russell Zinn’s prediction 4-12, last in division.

They look so good on paper. Sorry Antonio Brown, but Julio Jones is the best wr in the league right now. Matty ice looks like a great qb. Except he’s not. He definitely doesn’t live up to his nickname. He’s Jeff George without the attitude. He puts up big numbers (thanks to great wrs) but folds in the clutch. They started last year 6-1 then collapsed finishing the season on a 2-7 pace. Looking at their schedule this season they could very easily start off 0-6. They won’t recover from something like that. J.Russell Zinn

Michael Eccleston predicts 7-9, 3rd in the division.

Oh boy. What can I say about the Atlanta Falcons? They got off to such a great start last year…. And then, just, yeah the rest is history. The offensive talent is there….. It’s been “there” for so many years now. I’m getting tired of saying it’s time for Matt Ryan to step up and play to his potential. At this point, just get the job done or he just is what he is: An above average quarterback who has the talent but just couldn’t seem to put it all together. He has had the weapons around him offensively. Julio Jones is arguably the best wide receiver on the planet, Devonta Freeman turned into one of the best receiving runningbacks in the league. They’re going to get second year runningback Tevin Coleman involved in the offense more. Atlanta is also going to need Mohamed Sanu to step up big time. The Falcons added a lot of speed to their defense through this year’s draft, but it will probably take a year for them to gel. I expect more of the same from them. Inconsistency. NEXT Michael Eccleston 

How Strength of Schedule Affects the Outcome of the NFL Season…

Because of free agency, the draft, coaching changes, injuries and a ton of other factors, we all know that every season in the NFL presents a whole new variety of challenges for each team.

So even though we are always presented a list of each team’s strength of schedule at the beginning of the year, most of us just give it a curious glance and then move on. 

However, in looking back at the 2015 season, there are a few interesting facts that do pop out.

Only two of the teams in the the top 10 of easiest schedules (Texans #30) and (Carolina #27)  made the playoffs. 

 While 6 teams in the top 10 of most difficult schedules (Steelers #1),  (Bengals #2), (Seahawks #4), (Cardinals #5), (Chiefs #7) and (Broncos #10) made the playoffs. 

I was kind of surprised to see that the two teams with the toughest schedules (Steelers and Bengals) overall made the playoffs, but it makes perfect sense that both teams looked tired, broken and frustrated and had major players suffering from injuries as they entered their biggest games.

While the teams with the easiest schedules (Falcons #32) and (Colts 31) had decent runs but sputtered out and didn’t make the playoffs. 

The two teams headed to the Super Bowl took very different paths. 

The Broncos who had the 10th toughest schedule in the league, have struggled with injury and frustration as they’ve won their two playoff games by a total of only 9 points. 

The Panthers on the other hand, have been cruising as they appear to have hit their second peak of the season, and have won their two games by a total of 41 points. 

Although fans talk all season about he fact that the teams who succeeded while playing a weak schedule will fold when the competition gets tough, the opposite seems true. As the teams who haven’t been roughed up all year seem to be more fresh and ready to go as the playoffs approach.

So even though an easy schedule may not better your chances to reach the playoffs, it just may make it easier to succeed once you are there.