The Carolina Panthers start training camp Wednesday at Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. Before camp gets started our partners at USA TODAY Sports released their annual predictions for the upcoming season, and they aren’t too high on the 2017 Panthers.
Below, you’ll find USA TODAY Sports’ predictions for the each of the league’s divisions, including the NFC South, plus their picks for Super Bowl LII.
Atlanta Falcons (12-4): They may have the most loaded roster in the league and should get a boost opening their new stadium. The big questions about the NFC champs are the dreaded Super Bowl hangover — and the Falcons went on an unprecedented bender — the loss of OC Kyle Shanahan and a midseason stretch of four road games in five weeks that includes trips to New England and Seattle.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6): They seem poised to make their first playoff appearance in a decade after diversifying a lopsided offense with WR DeSean Jackson and rookie TE O.J. Howard. RB Doug Martin is apparently recharged, too, though he remains suspended for three games. They’ll see Falcons twice and Packers once during Weeks 12-15.
New Orleans Saints (8-8): Same old Saints? Adding Adrian Peterson to the backfield provides great intrigue, yet this team still looks like it will be in a shootout every week. And will it survive the first month? The Saints open with three of four on the road, including a game in London, and their only Superdome game in that stretch is a visit from former WR Brandin Cooks and the Patriots.
Carolina Panthers (7-9): Cam Newton has a surgically rebuilt arm and must settle into a surgically rebuilt offense that could be a real departure from what typically made Carolina successful before last year’s disaster. October looks rough with just one of five games in Charlotte, and that’s a tough Thursday nighter against Philly.
Dallas Cowboys (11-5): The league should be ready for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott — assuming he isn’t suspended — this time around; that celebrated O-line is breaking in two new starters; and the defense could be a hot mess. Still, there’s no denying this club’s offensive firepower. The Cowboys play four of their five November games at home, a good point to make a move in the standings.
New York Giants (10-6): They open with four of six on the road. Survive that stretch and maybe establish some semblance of a ground game to complement their aerial weapons, and the Giants could contend for the division.
Philadelphia Eagles (9-7): The offensive line is intact, and Carson Wentz has some fancy new weapons. But the defensive front seven better dominate, or else that shaky secondary could be fatally exposed. Back-to-back West Coast games in December hurt.
Washington Redskins (5-11):The questions about Kirk Cousins’ future will be on constant loop. And he may not enjoy the present all that much after losing two 1,000-yard receivers.
Green Bay Packers (12-4): They open against Seattle and at Atlanta and only play at Lambeau twice after Thanksgiving. Still, they should once again be the class of this division.
Minnesota Vikings (9-7): They don’t look significantly different from last year’s edition. The defense should again be special and Sam Bradford steady. Despite some free agent additions, the O-line could still be a weakness, though newcomers Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook should ensure Vikes don’t again own league’s worst rushing attack. Playing five of their first seven at U.S. Bank Stadium should set the tone.
Chicago Bears (5-11): None of their first six opponents finished below .500 in 2016 — quite a stern test for a club coming off a franchise record-tying 13 losses and breaking in at least one new quarterback.
Detroit Lions (5-11): It just feels like they lived on the edge way too often in 2016, and smoke and mirrors may not be enough against this year’s lineup. However if DE Ziggy Ansah rebounds, and RB Ameer Abdullah finally gets going, cynicism could turn to optimism.
Seattle Seahawks (11-5): They’re still the divisional front runners, especially with Russell Wilson and Earl Thomas healthy again. But a tough non-divisional road schedule (Packers, Titans, Giants, Cowboys) — and even a 1 p.m. ET start in Jacksonville — could make it awfully tough to earn an extended stay at CenturyLink Field in January.
Arizona Cardinals (10-6): They’ve got a special, special player in David Johnson. But will Carson Palmer and Tyrann Mathieu max out their abilities again? And how long can Larry Fitzgerald (league-high 107 catches), who will be 34 next month, handle such a heavy workload? (NOTE: In our projection, the Cardinals failed to earn a wild card based on a worse conference record than the Giants or Buccaneers.)
Los Angeles Rams (4-12): They’re a young team undergoing significant resets on both sides of the ball. And after opening with two winnable games (Colts, Redskins) at home, the Rams play five of the next six away from the L.A. Coliseum, including a “home” game in London bracketed by East Coast games in Jacksonville and New York.
San Francisco 49ers (2-14): Even if the records match, they should be a better team than Chip Kelly’s 2-14 club from 2016. But the talent base is largely deficient and so is the players’ familiarity with what new coaches want them to do on either side of the ball.
New England Patriots (16-0): Is it bold? Sure. Kinda. But it’s not like Tom Brady hasn’t gone 16-0 before … (and, really, wouldn’t he and Bill Belichick secretly love to add 19-0 to their otherwise incomparable resumes?). And from the FWIW department, Brady went 14-1 last season and appears to be surrounded by an even better cast now, especially if Rob Gronkowski is, in fact, back to 100%. The division should be a cakewalk, and even one of New England’s toughest road games — against the Raiders — will be at a neutral site (Mexico City). The most difficult stretch comes from Weeks 13-15, when the Pats play at Buffalo, at Miami (where they typically struggle) and at Pittsburgh coming off a short week Dec. 17.
Miami Dolphins (7-9): Coming off a playoff campaign in coach Adam Gase’s rookie season, much obviously rides on the health and continued development of Ryan Tannehill. The schedule isn’t all that friendly, with trips to the West Coast, London, a road date with Baltimore on a Thursday and December trips to Buffalo and Kansas City.
Buffalo Bills (4-12): New regime. New schemes. Tough schedule against the NFC South and AFC West.
New York Jets (1-15): Some Jets fans would tell you this is a glass half-full assessment. The first two games are on the road and so are three of the last four.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4): With the exception of an October foray to Kansas City, which concludes an opening stretch of four of six on the road, Pittsburgh’s most challenging non-divisional games will occur at Heinz Field.
Baltimore Ravens (9-7): Maybe a little heat on John Harbaugh after missing postseason three of the past four years. Tough break hosting the Steelers on Oct. 1 just seven days after playing in London. (NOTE: In our projection, the Ravens were seeded ahead of the Chargers due to a superior record in common games played.)
Cincinnati Bengals (5-11): The offensive line’s outlook is troubling, to say the least, especially with three consecutive road games against stout defensive teams (Jacksonville, Tennesee, Denver) in November. And will Marvin Lewis’ lame duck status only ratchet up the pressure on a team that tends to underachieve when it counts most?
Cleveland Browns (4-12): Even if they only improve by three games in the win column — not insignificant — expect this outfit to be far more competitive as its nucleus of talent continues to coalesce.
Tennessee Titans (12-4): Only a tiebreaker (for a woeful 2-4 division record) kept this rising club out of postseason last year. As long as Marcus Mariota remains on the field, the Titans might not only turn the corner but roar around it. They will hit a rough patch from Weeks 11-15, with a Thursday night game in Pittsburgh and consecutive games on the West Coast as part of a stretch when they play four of five away from Nashville.
Houston Texans (8-8): We know, Bill O’Brien has never failed to go 9-7 in any of his three seasons. But when your team’s top two quarterbacks have two combined NFL starts, it’s easy to foresee a season that serves as one step back before two steps forward occur in 2018.
Jacksonville Jaguars (8-8): Everything looks to be in place — a potentially dominant defense, upgraded O-line and (most exciting for Jags fans) rookie RB Leonard Fournette — to restore this franchise to relevance … if Blake Bortles can get back on track. The team will make its annual pilgrimage for a London “home” date in Week 3, immediately followed by two more road trips. If the Jags weather that, maybe they can make a run in December, which begins with three straight at EverBank Field.
Indianapolis Colts (5-11): How healthy, really, is Andrew Luck coming off major shoulder surgery? How much protection can he realistically expect from what’s been a suspect line, not to mention a running back (Frank Gore) who just turned 34? And that defense … oy vey. Making two West Coast trips in the first month to face rude defenses (Rams, Seahawks) could be telling.
Oakland Raiders (11-5): They open the season with three of four on the road and play their final two games away from Oakland, including the season’s final Monday night affair on the East Coast (Philadelphia). In between, they’ll play three consecutive homes games on two separate occasions, but one of those will occur against the Patriots in Mexico City — not exactly The Black Hole.
Los Angeles Chargers (9-7): Plenty to overcome, most notably adaptation to a new city and the smallest venue in the league (the StubHub Center will host its first NFL games in Weeks 2-4). Then there are personnel changes coming to the offensive line and a major schematic overhaul defensively. Still, the Bolts have done a nice job restocking their talent pool, especially on defense, and have the juice to be L.A.’s first playoff club since the 1993 Raiders.
Kansas City Chiefs (8-8): Of their five non-divisional road opponents, four were playoff teams last year (Patriots, Texans, Cowboys, Giants) … as if their AFC West battles didn’t present challenge enough. But if the Chiefs can hold it together until December, playing at Arrowhead from Weeks 14-16 could give them a decisive edge.
Denver Broncos (7-9): They’ve got major questions at quarterback … and running back … and on both lines. Also, a schedule frontloaded with home games and a Week 5 bye means the Broncos won’t be in Denver for seven of the final 11 weeks.
Wild card: (6) Chargers def. (3) Titans; (4) Raiders def. (5) Ravens
Divisional: (4) Raiders def. (2) Steelers; (1) Patriots def. (6) Chargers
AFC Championship Game: (1) Patriots def. (4) Raiders
Wild card: (6) Giants def. (3) Cowboys; (4) Seahawks def. (5) Buccaneers
Divisional: (2) Packers def. (4) Seahawks; (1) Falcons def. (6) Giants
NFC Championship Game: (2) Packers def. (1) Falcons
Super Bowl LII: Patriots def. Packers
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