The Carolina Panthers went 15-1 last season – or, put another way, seven games better than their closest NFC South rival. The Falcons went 8-8, the Saints went 7-9 and Buccaneers went 6-10.
Carolina simply ran away with it.
Looking ahead to this season, who will be the Panthers’ stiffest challenge in 2016?
“Themselves,” former Panthers offensive lineman and current WFNZ radio host Frank Garcia said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “I really believe that. I think they’re the best team. If you want to look at another team that might be close, it’s got to be the Falcons.”
The Falcons were the only team to beat Carolina in the regular season last year. They won, 20-13, in Atlanta in late December, this after getting blanked 38-0 in Carolina just two weeks earlier.
“They’re the one team that hit them in the mouth last year,” Garcia said. “There’s a rivalry. They have weapons on the offense that can attack the defensive secondary and some of their weaknesses. So they match up very well against them. Julio Jones is going to be a mismatch nightmare for a lot of teams, a lot of DBs.”
Jones had 136 catches for 1,871 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
Garcia also expects the Buccaneers to improve.
“Tampa Bay, I think, is almost there,” he said. “Their defense has the ability to get after you. You look at what they do upfront. It’s very similar to the Carolina Panthers. James Winston, it’ll be interesting to see his development and where he’s at. But I think those two teams really have the most potential to step up. I’d probably say the Falcons and the Bucs in a close second.”
The Saints, meanwhile, have Drew Brees and a couple of talented young receivers, but the defense has been a mess for quite some time. That probably won’t change in 2016 – or at least not enough to make a difference in the division.
“Anytime you have Drew Brees and you can sling it, you’re at risk,” Garcia said. “He can throw it for 400 yards any given day and just light it up. But unfortunately, he’s to that point right now where he’s going to have those 400-yard days and then he’s going to have those six-sack days because the guys around him may just not be as talented as some of those other teams.”
Carolina opens the season at Denver on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. This game marks a rematch of Super Bowl 50, which the Broncos won, 24-10.