The Carolina Panthers had a good offseason. Their lines, both offensive and defensive, should be better. In draft picks Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel – and Samuel also is going to be good – they added speed. If Cam Newton can find them with quick passes, they’re quick enough to turn those short passes into long gains.
As important as the speed Carolina has acquired is an improved offensive line. If Matt Kalil looks as good as he did in camp and in exhibition games, and can stay healthy, Carolina made a good albeit expensive investment.
If there was a weakness, the Panthers filled it. This is a good team.
But they play in the NFC South, and the division is loaded. Atlanta will be the rare team that will not succumb to the Super Bowl Loser jinx. The Falcons can put up points, and their defense will be better than it was a season ago. Injured players will regain their health, and talented young players will have gained experience. They lost a Super Bowl in a manner that still is unfathomable. But rather than dwell in, “Hi, this is the Falcons and we can’t come to the phone right now because we’re gagging,” they’ll move on.
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I always like the teams that are willing to expose their preseason selves on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” Tampa Bay was featured this season. This could be the Buccaneers’ year, and you haven’t heard that since 2016. I respect their talent. Like Atlanta and Carolina, they have playoff talent.
New Orleans will score. The Saints always score. Stopping other teams from scoring is their annual weakness. When I think of them, I think of how good they once were. But they’ve gone 7-9 the past three seasons.
I picked the Panthers last season to go 10-6, so I had the right numbers but the wrong order. This season I see 9-7. Not every team with playoff talent makes the playoffs.
The Falcons will beat Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, and Oakland will upset New England in the AFC Championship Game. I know I’m supposed to pick New England; logic dictates it. But the world is more interesting when the silver and black prevail.
This time Atlanta doesn’t fade. The Falcons go to Minneapolis, where the temperature on Super Bowl Sunday will be 7 degrees, and beat Oakland 29-24.
Bonus pick: The fans who have the pull to go the Super Bowl will say, almost simultaneously, “I like the city, but how do people live in this climate?”