NFL Preview: Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers

This article is part of a series previewing the 2018-2019 NFL season where we will cover quick notes on all 32 NFL teams, favorite potential storylines, win-loss predictions, the playoff picture, and my picks to compete in Super Bowl LIII.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons were on the wrong side of history when the New England Patriots came back from a 28-3 deficit in Super Bowl LI, to beat the Falcons in the first overtime game in Super Bowl history 34-28.  An unfathomable loss like this could break a franchise into pieces, and it would be understandable.  After this game, offensive wizard Kyle Shanahan went west to take the head coach position in San Francisco, leaving MVP Matt Ryan with new offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian.  Head coach Dan Quinn, despite all the adversity brought upon from the Super Bowl collapse, was able to get the Falcons back in the playoffs at 10-6 and take down the LA Rams in the wild card round.  The team fell short against eventual Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, but by all accounts, you have to give credit to the Falcons not folding when it would have been too easy to do.  Another year removed from Super Bowl LI should give the team more clarity and should be able to take another step forward to get back to the big dance.

QB Matt Ryan is now the NFL’s highest paid player at $30 million a season and should be much more comfortable after a year of playing in Sarkisian’s offense.  WR Julio Jones got a nice bonus this offseason to make him happy, and the Falcons used their first-round pick to draft another Alabama WR, Calvin Ridley, to pair next to Jones, just like they did when they drafted Jones to play next to Roddy White.  The Trio of Jones, Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu will give secondaries trouble with TE Austin Hooper coming across the middle.  The backfield of DeVonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman has been great over the past three seasons, and I do not see anything changing there.  The Falcons offensive line is one of the few in the league with zero holes across the board.  All these guys have played in big games and have been protecting Ryan for multiple years.  This is the most complete offense in the NFL, and they should continue to carry over their success from the previous two seasons.

The defense is young, athletic, and hungry.  MLB Dion Jones is the alpha of the group and has many Pro Bowls to look forward to in his future.  The speed he has at the linebacker position is ridiculous and covers the run and pass both exceptionally well.  The defensive line, anchored by DT Grady Jarrett, is deep, with veteran DE’s Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby being primarily run stoppers, while young guns Vic Beasley and Tak McKinley are more pass rushing specialists.  Third and longs with Beasley, McKinley, Jarrett, and Jones roaming the middle of the field is a dangerous proposition for opposing quarterbacks.  The team’s secondary is strong with CB Desmond Trufant, CB Jay Alford, SS Keanu Neal, and FS Ricardo Allen all having the abilities to make plays on the ball when the front seven can generate a strong rush on passing situations.

It would not be a surprise to me if the Saints and Falcons flip flopped in my predictions.  The teams are both built very similarly, and both have the potential to be a top seed in the NFC this season.  The reason I picked the Falcons to finish slightly behind the Saints in 2018 is because the Falcons tend to get off to an average start.  The team started 4-3 in 2016 and 4-4 in 2017.  Neither of those are bad by any means, but it is hard to win twelve games if you lose three games before the halfway point of the season.  The Falcons are a playoff team, and with the experience on the roster, they are capable to make it back to the Super Bowl this season.

Favorite Potential Storyline:  The offense starts off slow, like 2017, and the media starts questioning Sarkisian, and asking questions about his drinking issues.  Sounds like a 2018 storyline to me, making a huge mess of someone’s personal demons.  Nice.

Prediction: 11-5 (2nd in NFC South, 6th Seed in NFC Playoffs)

Carolina Panthers

The Carolina Panthers have one of the weirdest rosters in the NFL this season.  Cam Newton is entering year eight (feels like it was yesterday when he got caught in the middle of a dumbass scandal at Auburn), and this season brings the most uncertainty he has faced to date.  The front office recognized that a lack of skilled position guys, besides TE Greg Olsen, was a major issue the year after their Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos, and that became a concentration in the previous two drafts.  The team used their top two selections in 2017 on RB Christian McCaffery and WR Curtis Samuel, and their top choice in 2018 on WR DJ Moore.  The Panthers now half McCaffery, Samuel, Moore, Olsen, and hot and cold WR Devin Funchess at their disposal, which makes for a unique group of athletes.  The group’s speed paired with Newton’s ability to scramble around is going to be horrible for defenses that do not have great athletes, and a treat for Madden players trying not to use one of the top-rated teams in the video game.  The issue that could ruin this fantasy is the poor offensive line.  LT Matt Kalil was an utter disappoint in his tenure in Minnesota and might be a downgrade from Michael Oher.  Center Ryan Kalil has not been the same since their Super Bowl run.  Trai Turner is the only dependable starter on the line, and this will force Cam to be on the move constantly.  Newton is already a guy that struggles mightily with accuracy and throwing on the run is much more difficult than standing tall in the pocket.

As a Bucs fan, I am still salty over Luke Kuechly.  Tampa Bay had the seventh overall pick in the 2012 draft, and I was all in on Kuechly.  Derrick Brooks is my all-time favorite Buccaneer, and I wanted to have a franchise linebacker back in my life.  The Bucs decided to be the Bucs and draft safety Mark Barron out of Alabama instead, and Barron was out of Tampa before his rookie contract was up.  Kuechly is going to be a Hall of Famer.  Fuck me.

Kuechly continues to lead this defense, but DT Kawann Short could be one of the top three interior defenders in the NFL.  This 1-2 punch in the middle of the defense along with veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, and his pupil, Shaq Thompson, fueled the team to finish third in rushing yards allowed last season (88.1).  That’s all great, but the NFL is a passing league in 2018, and the Panthers secondary is a combination of old safeties that can drop off at any point, and unproven cornerbacks.  That is not going to cut it in a division that has three of the top eight passing offenses in the league last season.  The Panthers are going to struggle stopping anything in the air, unless young cornerbacks James Bradberry and Donte Jackson play above their expected production this season.  The Panthers defense in general is starting to age, and with the emphasis on offense the previous two drafts, general manager Marty Hurney is going to need to start building the defense, specifically the secondary.

The Panthers have a talented roster, but their weaknesses play right into a tough division, and the NFC conference in general.  The offense is going to be able to outscore opponents throughout their schedule, but I do not have confidence that the defense is going to be good enough to allow the team to win more than eight games, especially with the transition from now Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilkes to new defensive coordinator Eric Washington.  Luckily for the Panthers, Drew Brees is almost 40, and the Bucs are on the verge of blowing it up in Tampa.  The division title could belong to the Panthers in the next year or two, but I do not see that happening in 2018.

Favorite Potential Storyline:  I am a Cam Newton supporter.  Not because of his talent, but because I enjoy when players express themselves while in-game.  He is cocky, arrogant, and gets visibly pissed off on the field.  It is great.  You know you are getting authenticity with Cam.  I am excited for him to curse out Matt Kalil on TV on multiple occasions, then the media questions his leadership and all that jazz.  Will be a great discussion on Get Up!

Prediction: 8-8 (3rd in NFC South)

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