Despite all the talk that an NFL team must have a top-level quarterback and offense to be competitive, the reality is that 11 of the 12 playoff teams in 2015 (all except for the Washington Redskins) ranked in the top half of the league in scoring defense.
The Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos were especially reliant on their defense as they finished 19th in the NFL in scoring offense, but allowed the fourth fewest points in the league.
Whether the Broncos can repeat that pattern in 2016 will certainly be put to the test as their offense could struggle. With Peyton Manning making TV commercials (and cupcakes) and Brock Osweiler off to the Houston Texans, the Broncos are giving the quarterback duties to former 7th round pick Trevor Siemian, who has played in one NFL regular season game and is yet to throw a pass in an official game.
The defending NFC Champion Carolina Panthers also had a great defense in 2015 (ranked 6th in points allowed), but they also had the best quarterback in the league and scored an NFL-best 500 points. If Cam Newton continues to play at an MVP level and the defense can overcome the loss of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, look for them to again be the team to beat in the NFC.
Below are five additional interesting storylines to follow in 2016:
Has the Window Closed for the Green Bay Packers?
Since winning Super Bowl XLV following the 2010 season, the Green Bay Packers have made five straight playoff appearances, including a 10-6 record a year ago. However, with the exception of the 2014 season when they had the Seattle Seahawks on the ropes in the NFC Championship Game, they have been unable to get past the divisional playoff round.
With 32-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers entering his ninth season as the starter and other key veterans closing in on the latter stages of their careers, the Packers may be nearing the point where their chances to win another championship in the near future are narrowing.
There was a time when it seemed that Rodgers had his pick of great offensive weapons. However, last season the preseason loss of Jordy Nelson exposed a lack of receiver depth and Rodgers seemed to be a victim. He posted the lowest completion percentage of his career and the fewest passing yards of any full season since he became the starter in 2008. His 92.7 quarterback rating was also the lowest of his career.
After being sacked only 28 times in 2014, Rodgers hit the dirt 46 times a year ago, which could have contributed to his struggles. It will be crucial for the Packers to shore up the offensive line and give Rodgers more time to work his magic.
With Nelson back this season and Eddie Lacy looking for a rebound season after struggling with his weight a year ago, it will be interesting to see if Rodgers returns to the top of the league statistically or if he will continue a slight decline.
Last year the Green Bay defense ranked 12th in points allowed, sixth in passing defense and 21st in rushing defense. While Green Bay’s success is generally dependent on Rodgers and the offense, they will go only so far if the defense struggles.
Will the Cincinnati Bengals Ever Win a Playoff Game?
The Cincinnati Bengals have reached the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons, including the last five in a row. However, each trip has concluded with a loss in the wild card round and most of the losses haven’t even been close.
Last year the Bengals won the AFC North with a 12-4 record. However, with quarterback Andy Dalton injured in the 13th game of the season, the offense struggled a bit down the stretch and the season ended with a bitter 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bengals continue to have one of the most talented rosters in the league, but often are the victims of either bad luck or self-inflicted wounds when they can least be afforded.
Head Coach Marvin Lewis has done an amazing job turning the Bengals into perennial contenders, but at some point they must have playoff success or move in a different direction.
Though again very talented, it could be tougher for the Bengals in 2016 as the Pittsburgh Steelers appear ready for a playoff run and the Baltimore Ravens will surely be back as a contender after having an uncharacteristically down season a year ago.
Who Wants To Win the NFC East?
Last year it looked for much of the season like no one really wanted to win the NFC East.
The Dallas Cowboys were the preseason favorites, but injuries took their toll on the offense and left them a shell of their expected selves.
The Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants were both inconsistent and as a result both have new coaches in 2016.
Surprisingly, the Washington Redskins ended 2016 as the only team in the division with a winning record thanks to wins in five of their final six games.
Washington scored 107 points in their final three games to cruise into the playoffs. Quarterback Kirk Cousins looked like a legitimate NFL star over the final month of the season and has the Redskins believing they can again win the NFC East in 2016.
With Dallas already dealing with an injury to Tony Romo that looks to keep him out the first six to eight weeks, the Cowboys have to hope that the rest of the division struggles again in 2016.
Philadelphia looks to have the most talent in the division, but will enter the season with Chase Daniel and rookie Carson Wentz as their quarterbacks.
The Giants have the most proven quarterback in the division in two-time Super Bowl Champion Eli Manning. However, first year coach Ben McAdoo must prove that it was indeed the coach, and not the talent level of the players, that was the undoing for the Giants last season.
Will the Patriots Even Miss Tom Brady?
The biggest story entering the 2016 NFL season is the suspension of Tom Brady for the first four games of the season.
Regardless of whether you think the suspension is justified or a commissioner overstep, the reality is that after prolonging it for more than a year, Brady and the Patriots now must part ways for the next four weeks.
Jimmy Garropolo has thrown 31 regular season passes in two NFL seasons entering 2016. It is very likely that he will eclipse that total in the first game of 2016.
The schedule doesn’t do Garropolo and the Patriots any favors as they open the season with a Sunday night game against the Arizona Cardinals. However, their next three games are all at home. If the Patriots can finish the four games of the Brady suspension with a 2-2 record or better, their chances of reaching the playoffs for the eighth straight season are extremely good.
Regardless of what they do without Brady, you can bet that once he returns from exile, Brady will be breathing fire and determined to make the rest of the NFL pay for the wrong he believes done to him by Roger Goodell.
What is the Future for the Oakland Raiders?
The biggest question for the Oakland Raiders in 2016 is whether it is most likely that they will reach the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade or move from Oakland to Los Angeles or Las Vegas?
With a solid core of young players, the Raiders seem likely to improve on their 7-9 record of a year ago and perhaps register their first winning season since 2002.
Third year quarterback Derek Carr made huge strides a year ago, thanks in part to the emergence of running back Latavius Murray and receiver Amari Cooper. They ranked 17th in points scored a year ago, but should improve on that number in 2016.
The defense was 22nd in points allowed, but have one of the best young defensive players in the league in Khalil Mack.
If the question of where the Raiders will play beyond 2016 doesn’t become too much of a distraction, look for the Raiders to be one of the surprise teams of the year.
2016 Fearless Predictions:
Division Winners: New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals
Wild Card Teams: Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings
Division Winners: New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs
Wild Card Teams: New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers
Super Bowl 51: Arizona Cardinals vs. New England Patriots
Super Bowl Champion: New England Patriots