By Michael LeCompte
Every sports news outlet and publication has offered up its insider, in-depth analysis of every NFL team in the last month to get us ready for the season opener this Sunday. All of that analysis is wholly unnecessary, though, because while the NFL loves to declare that parity among its franchises has never been greater, there are really only about six teams with a legitimate shot to make the Super Bowl.
So, here’s a brief preview of the top storylines heading into the 2016 NFL season, a look at two teams (one from each conference that could surprise), and the six teams that have a realistic shot at reaching the Super Bowl.
Tom Brady: He finally accepted his punishment for Deflategate and will sit out the first four weeks of the season. Football fans across the country see this as justice finally being served, while in Boston Saint Tom is now a true martyr. Whether he was guilty of anything, or whether the league overreacted with a heavy-hand doesn’t matter. The reality of the situation is that Brady finally chose to stop fighting and serve his four games because the Patriots open the season with games against Arizona, Miami, Houston, and Buffalo. New England should be able to start 3-1 and not miss a beat without Brady. It’s Jimmy Garoppolo time in New England now-for four weeks anyway-but remember, before Bledsoe went down nobody had ever heard of Brady either. A decade from now we might just be talking about Garoppolo the Great.
Colin Kaepernick: The for-now backup quarterback in San Francisco is a story as the season starts, but not for his national anthem protests which have dominated sports media recently. Kap’s fading football career (at least in San Francisco) is the real story this season. Here was a young guy who along with Newton and Wilson was ready to revolutionize the league. He went to one Super Bowl and was a Richard Sherman tipped pass away from another and then…nothing. While he could still probably outrun half of the NFL Kaepernick failed to develop as a passer and now finds himself on the bench.
Whether Kaepernick works his way back onto the field-in San Francisco or anywhere else will be a storyline to watch this season.
Teams To Watch
Every season a couple of teams seem to surprise and become competitive and perhaps even make the playoffs. In 2016 those teams are Oakland and Minnesota.
Oakland: The Raiders have been downright terrible for over a decade now. However, they are a young, talented team and with Manning gone in Denver their division is suddenly up for grabs. Oakland has the pieces in place for a dominant defense with a shutdown secondary and the offseason addition of Bruce Irvin at linebacker should help. With a little more consistent play on offense from quarterback Derek Carr the Raiders could snag a Wild Card playoff berth.
Minnesota: The Vikings made the playoffs as a Wild Card last year and were a shanked field goal away from upsetting Seattle. Expectations were high this year until Teddy Bridgewater tore up his knee. Most pundits feel the NFC North belongs to Green Bay now. The Vikings still possess a dominant, top-ten defense, though, as well as an explosive running game led by Adrian Peterson. While the signing of Sam Bradford at QB may not have thrilled fans, it could work. Bradford inherits a team that features a quarterbacks two best friends (the aforementioned running game and defense). Bradford doesn’t have to be brilliant for the Vikings playoff hopes to be alive and well.
The Legitimate Contenders
AFC: The Patriots are still the team to beat in the AFC. Brady, Belichick, Gronkowski, and company should dominate their weak AFC East schedule again, and are probably the AFC Super Bowl favorites.
Pittsburgh: If the Steelers-especially Roethlisberger-stay healthy they could challenge the Patriots for AFC supremacy. Always stout on defense Pittsburgh now has the explosive offense to put them over the top. Mike Tomlin’s penchant for going for two rather than kicking the now 33 yard extra point should also pay off over the season.
NFC: The NFC field is fairly crowded with four teams that could make it to Houston’s RNG Stadium in February.
Carolina: The Panthers went 15-1 last year and made the Super Bowl, yet they still don’t get the press or respect that most dominant teams do. Carolina should be just as good this season, perhaps even better with the return of big-play receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Arizona: The Cardinals have a deep, shut-down defense and an explosive offense. This team has a lot of potential, but it will only go as far as Carson Palmer takes them. Arizona made the NFC Championship game last year before Palmer imploded. A more consistent year from their quarterback and Arizona could easily be in the big game.
Green Bay: It seems as though Green Bay has gotten preseason Super Bowl hype for about the past five years now, before being beset by injuries and forgetting to play defense. Rodgers and company should put up over thirty points a game yet again, but coming up with enough stops on defense could be an issue once more.
Seattle: The Seahawks have had the NFL’s top-ranked defense for four straight seasons now-a rare feat. How long the Legion of Boom can stay on top remains to be seen, but with the emergence of the Hawks’ offense into a top-ten unit last season, they don’t need to be as dominant as they have been. Seattle can now beat opponents in multiple ways-by shutting them down defensively, or overwhelming them offensively-which could equal another Super Bowl for Seattle.
There it is, a brief 2016 NFL preview for the casual fan. I will hold off on making some bold Super Bowl prediction due to the possibility of shredded knees, locker room discord, contract disputes, drug suspensions, and domestic violence charges. However, look for one of these six teams-New England, Pittsburgh, Carolina, Arizona, Green Bay, or Seattle- to hoist the Lombardi trophy come February.