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Here’s another “Super Bowl or bust” team in the NFC.
New Orleans has endured historic heartbreak, and yet remains one of the most talented and battle-tested teams in the league. Alvin Kamara is back healthy, but wants his money. Drew Brees is back on a 2-year deal at age 41, but had fences to mend after controversial comments during the George Floyd unrest.
Those “buts” shouldn’t derail a Saints offense that added Emmanuel Sanders as a much-needed receiving threat opposite the prolific Michael Thomas, but it’s certainly worth mentioning.
Malcolm Jenkins is back for a second tour of duty in the Crescent City, providing leadership and a strong veteran presence in the defensive backfield. If he’s got anything left in the tank, there aren’t many (any?) weaknesses in that defense.
Much like Baltimore, New Orleans could use years of playoff embarrassment and a supremely talented roster into fuel for a championship run. Don’t be surprised if they run into each other in February.
Tom Brady and Tampa Bay. Talk about an unlikely pairing.
TB12 migrated south to end TB’s 12-year playoff drought, joining the NFL’s winningest QB with the most loss-prone franchise in any of the four major North American professional sports leagues. (Just to put that in perspective, Brady’s six Super Bowl rings are the exact same number as the franchise’s all-time playoff victories. For real.)
Brady says football is fun again, which I’m sure has a lot to do with not being around Bill Belichick anymore, but also with being reunited with the un-retired Rob Gronkowski and throwing to a deep receiving corps. We’ll see how fun it is in an offense that will leave him susceptible to more hits than his 43-year-old bones are used to, especially if rookie Tristan Wirfs struggles to adequately block Brady’s blindside. If Tampa gets better results from Leonard Fournette than Jacksonville did, the Bucs can lean on the run game to take some of the pressure off Brady and company.
Shaq Barrett is coming off a 20-sack season he almost certainly won’t replicate — only J.J. Watt has had more than one 20-sack season, and no one has done it in consecutive years since sacks became an official statistic in 1982 — but the only big question is the secondary, where the Bucs are relying on some young, talented players still learning the ropes without a normal offseason. The Brady factor alone makes this team a threat to be the first to play a Super Bowl on its home-field — I’m just not sold on the Bucs’ ability to outplay a Saints team blessed with more continuity and just as much talent.
On paper, Atlanta should be great. The Falcons boast 11 former first-rounders as projected starters on offense, the most in the common draft era, and have 17 first-rounders overall.
But are they ever as good as advertised? You’d think a team with a former MVP quarterback (Matt Ryan) throwing to talents like Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley would be a playoff team and division front-runner. Instead, Ryan seems destined to be a trivia question — the guy nobody remembers won MVP because he’s more famous for quarterbacking a team that blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl.
Plus, the offense is relying on a pair of second-year offensive lineman (Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary) to solidify an O-line that steadily declined into one of the league’s worst in 2019. The oft-injured Todd Gurley will need that line to be much-improved if he’s going to produce at his 2017 Offensive Player of the Year level.
The Falcons defense remains the team’s biggest wild card. There’s a ton of question marks beyond Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones, and the secondary desperately needs Keanu Neal to stay healthy after back-to-back season-ending injuries the last two years. It feels like another season of underachieving in Atlanta, which will probably mean a new coach in 2021.
Carolina’s still-kinda-new owner David Tepper is willing to throw his money around, but it’s hard to tell if he really knows what to spend it on yet.
Rookie coach Matt Rhule basically brought his Baylor staff with him to the pros, meaning a largely inexperienced staff will coach up a largely inexperienced Panthers roster that has the youngest defense in the last decade, in large part because the team used all of its 2020 draft picks on defensive players. Four of those rookies will start, and while Tre Boston and Shaq Thompson are good veteran players, they’re not good enough to carry such a young unit that will undoubtedly miss the retired Luke Kuechly.
Offensively, Teddy Bridgewater is a nice veteran replacement for Cam Newton, but Carolina puzzlingly traded their best O-lineman in his prime (Trai Turner) for an injury-prone left tackle (Russell Okung) in the last year of his contract (and who may or may not have been mulling retirement). The Panthers are pretty solid at the skill positions with Bridgewater, Christian McCaffrey and D.J. Moore, but that doesn’t mean much if the offensive line is a mess (which looks likely). Time will tell if Rhule is a worthy successor to longtime coach Ron Rivera, but 2020 is almost certainly going to be a setback for Carolina.