Previews & Predictions for the 2016 NFL Season: AFC & NFC South

In the last blog, I took a look at the teams in the North of the AFC and NFC and now it is time to move down south. On the NFC side, the division had been very competitive through the years. But recently, the Panthers have been tops in the NFC South. And the AFC South was actually kind of competitive last year, but mainly because none of the teams were very good at all. But 2016 brings new hope to all of those teams and let’s take a look at how each team stacks up against the competition.

AFC South

Let’s just say that 2015 was a fluke season for the Indianapolis Colts. Andrew Luck battled injuries and did not look himself all season and their backup quarterbacks did about as well as one could hope. But I am sure that head coach Chuck Pagano is praying for a quick turn around so that he can keep his job past five years. And expect Luck and the Colts to do just that. An 8-8 record without Luck for the majority of the season was amazing, but with Luck I think Indianapolis will have at least 10 or 11 wins this year. T. Y. Hilton, Phillip Dorsett, and Donte Moncrief will assist Luck in the passing game, but the running game is the weak spot in this offense. Indianapolis has a group of veteran running backs that are either past their prime or have never been significant contributors wherever they were. The defense is good enough to win the division and get into the postseason and shouldn’t be a question. How good they can be will rely on the running game helping to take the pressure off of Andrew Luck.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have improved every year under head coach Gus Bradley and despite only winning five games last season, anyone who watched the Jags would know that they looked a lot better than their record showed. The offense is lead by third-year QB Blake Bortles. The third overall pick in 2014, Bortles threw for over 4,000 yards in 2015 and 35 touchdowns. If he can cut back on turnovers, he will emerge this year as a top-level QB. Helping Bortles is receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. This duo made a name for themselves last season and are among the best duo wide receivers in the league. TE Julius Thomas will also help as he will be fully healthy and ready to start the season. In 2015, rookie T. J. Telson had the workload at running back and is joined this year by veteran Chris Ivory. The biggest downside to the Jags last year was their defense. But they went out and signed a few players to help that side of the ball. Tashaun Gipson, Prince Amukamara, and Malik Jackson will join rookie Myles Jack and second year DE Dante Fowler Jr., who missed his entire rookie season due to injury. With an improved defense and high-powered offense, expect the Jaguars to finish second in the division, but just miss out on the postseason.

The Texans somehow finished 2015 with a 9-7 record and won the division with Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, and Brandon Weeden as their quarterbacks. This year, they signed Denver backup Brock Osweiler and hope that he can lead their offense like he did in limited action for the Broncos. If he is capable, he has a star receiver in DeAndre Hopkins to throw to and ex-Miami Dolphin Lamar Miller to help in the running game. Houston is also hoping for a spark from rookie QB-turned-WR Braxton Miller. But if Osweiler does no perform as advertised, it looks to be a long season in Houston. I’m sorry, but J. J. Watt and the Texans defense can only win so many games. Injuries are seeming to catch up to the great DE and it will only continue if his offense cannot stay on the field long enough to give him a break. Regardless, I believe the Texans will take a step back to reality and miss out on a postseason birth in 2016.

The Tennessee Titans are a team on the rise but it is still a year or two away. The Titans finished 3-13 last year in a season that saw head coach Ken Whisenhunt fired after seven games and replaced by Mike Mularkey for the remainder of the season. Mularkey was able to keep the job in 2016 and now hopes to rebuild the Titans. This will be done behind second-year QB Marcus Mariota. The former Oregon Duck had a good rookie season and should improve with the weapons around him. In the backfield, he will have running backs DeMarrco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry as his main threats. Murray is hoping to bounce back after a horrendous year in Philly and Henry, the former Alabama Crimson Tide Heisman Trophy winner, should be a stud RB in the NFL for years to come. The depth at WR is a little shallow, but Andre Johnson, Rishard Matthews, Kendall Wright , and Harry Douglas should make Mariota’s job that much easier, especially with pro bowl TE Delanie Walker. The defense is still questionable and will probably be the weaker link of the Titans, but they should be good enough to help Tennessee at least double their win total from last season.
NFC South

As a Saints fan, it pains me to say that I believe that the Carolina Panthers will once again be the team to beat the in NFC South. Sixth-year coach Ron Rivera led the Panthers to a 15-1 record last year and a trip to the Super Bowl. But in the biggest game of their season, the Panthers were owned by the Denver Broncos and ended the season on a bad note. That sour taste in their mouth has carried over to this year and Carolina will be looking to return to the Super Bowl. And with QB Cam Newton and MLB Luke Keuchly leading their sides of the ball, I don’t see why they won’t repeat last year’s success. As long as health doesn’t become a factor, the Panthers will be right back atop the NFC South and a favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

I couldn’t put the New Orleans Saints first in the division, but I do believe (and hope) they are the second best in the division. Drew Brees is a top-level QB in the league despite being 37 years old. He is good enough to make any of his receivers look great and that is good for the Saints as they have a young, relatively untested receiving group. The veteran of the group is Brandin Cooks and I am not yet sold that he can be productive through an entire season. The addition of TE Coby Fleener hopefully helps the air attack as well. The running game needs to produce as Mark Ingram, C. J. Spiller, and Tim Hightower will be called upon to help Brees and the passing game. On the defensive side of the ball, the Saints have been every bad adjective you can imagine. The historically terrible defense is hoping to improve with the additions of DT Nick Fairley, MLB James Laurinaitis, CB Cortland Finnegan, and SS Roman Harper. With these veterans joining some of the young talent the Saints have, the defense should improve in 2016.

The Atlanta Falcons enter their second season under head coach Dan Quinn, after going 8-8 last season. The Falcons are always a mysterious team that seems to underproduce when so much is expected of them. QB Matt Ryan has one less weapon without WR Roddy White, but still has the amazing Julio Jones. Jones is a threat whenever he is on the field, and joined with WR Mohamed Sanu and RB Devonta Freeman, give the Falcons a potentially high-octane offense. But can they live up to expectations? That always seems to be Atlanta’s problem. And with an average defense, I don’t see the Falcons getting to the top of the division this year. I predict just another average season for the team that can never seem to put everything together for a full season.

Last year’s number one overall pick and pro bowler Jameis Winston will be under center again for the Bucs, but he will be guided by first year coach Dirk Koetter. Koetter, the Bucs offensive coordinator last year, takes over for Lovie Smith who went 6-10 last year. Despite a decent season, Tampa Bay is starting over with their coaching position and Winston will have to lead an offense with a few bright spots, but some glaring holes. RB Doug Martin had a resurgence last season and Tampa Bay is hoping that continues into 2016. And the receivers Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson will be called upon to hep their young QB during the season. Other than these few players, the rest of the Bucs offense is pretty pedestrian. They have a better all around defense, but injuries hurt their effectiveness. LInebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and William Gholston will be looked to lead the defense and help keep the Buccaneers in many games this year. And while I think they will finish with about the same record this year, that means Tampa Bay will still finish last in the NFC South.
Daryl Karpinski, Jr.