Carolina Panthers versus Denver Broncos was a brilliant finish to last season, and the same two teams get the 2016 NFL season under way this week.
Tom Young and Alex Butcher have filed their thoughts on who will underwhelm, surpass expectations and go on to lift the Lombardi Trophy in Houston when February arrives.
To under-perform: Minnesota Vikings
A couple of weeks ago I’d have said the Vikings were on their way to the play-offs with a realistic chance of competing in the Super Bowl – but not anymore.
Expectations of a breakout season from Teddy Bridgewater would help take some of the burden off Adrian Peterson’s shoulders to make a true dual-threat attack – that was until Bridgewater was ruled out for the year with a freak injury. Instead, the Vikings head into the season with inconsistent Sam Bradford under centre.
I’m not saying the play-offs are out of reach, but a late post-season charge seems all but gone.
To surpass expectations: Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville are in one of the weakest divisions in the NFL – Houston Texans won the AFC South last season with only nine wins – and they are set for a season of improvement.
Last year they were .500 at home but struggled on the road with just one win. They performed below expectations last year but this time around I think they’ll get it together enough for a play-off appearance.
The Jags have a wealth of talent in the offence with Blake Bortles, receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, along with the running back competition between T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory. All they need is an above average defence and Jacksonville will make their first post-season appearance since 2007.
Super Bowl pick: Seattle Seahawks
As we’ve seen numerous times in recent years, defences win titles, but what could be better than having one of the best in the league along with an elite offence too?
The Seahawks struggled at the beginning of last year and never looked themselves, but still managed to reach the Divisional play-off. Russell Wilson has another year under his belt and the defensive line and secondary hasn’t lost any of its key pieces that has taken Seattle to two Super Bowls in the last three years.
The biggest question lies at running back with the off-season retirement of Marshawn Lynch but Christine Michael or Thomas Rawls should fill some of the void and a much-improved year from Jimmy Graham will also help.
To under-perform: Kansas City Chiefs
I’ve made my selections for the season and Houston Texans and Washington Redskins are the only two of last year’s Playoff teams I’ve tipped to miss out this time around — and I think they both over-performed last year.
So I’m going to say Kansas, who will be expected by some to take advantage of Denver’s quarterback conundrum and take first spot in the AFC West. But not for me.
I’m a big fan of Jamaal Charles, but the Chiefs are far too reliant on a running back who is now in his ninth year and has struggled with injuries in the past. They should have enough to reach the post-season again — but they’ll fall at the first hurdle.
To surpass expectations: New York Giants
The Giants have failed to make the post-season since lifting the Lombardi Trophy back in 2011, but I expect that to change this year.
The NFC East is a tight division, but not a particularly strong one. Odell Beckham Jr will continue to make a difference, but Eli Manning will have more wide receiver options with the fit-again Victor Cruz, versatile Dwayne Harris and second-round draft pick Sterling Shepard.
Manning — a two-time Super Bowl winner — will also welcome what looks to be a settled running game, with Rashad Jennings set to carry the load this year. The Big Blue rotated four backs during last year’s second successive 6-10-0 season, but a sole focus in the backfield should give something else for the opposition to think about.
The defence also looks strong after an impressive free agency, so if the offensive line can step up then the Giants are poised to go well.
Super Bowl pick: Arizona Cardinals
On paper, the strongest roster in the NFL, so could this be Arizona’s year?
Last year, Bruce Arians’ Cards ended up 13-3-0 and claimed their first divisional crown since 2009. They fell emphatically short against the Panthers in the NFC Championship game, but I’m confident that they can bounce back in style.
Quarterback Carson Palmer is blessed with attacking weapons, and I can’t wait to see running back David Johnson return to the gridiron after an outstanding rookie season. With playmakers in the defence too, this franchise looks like the real deal.