It's been another exciting season in the NFL. At the beginning of each year, each team/fanbase has a slue of expectations for their team whether you're in the middle of a rebuild, seeing how rookie talent pans out or plotting for contention in the playoffs. Regardless of the team, expectations always change. Injuries, free agency and coaching changes all play a role in how a team re-evaluates their priorities, and there's never a shortage of any of those three in this league. Here's how the NFC East faired this season.
The missed pass interference/helmet-to-helmet call in the NFC Championship has put a sour taste in what was a great season for the Saints all things considered. The last time the Saints made the division championship game they went on to win the Super Bowl and many believe that they had a great chance to compete against whatever team emerged out of the AFC. However, losing a 13-point lead at home and then failing to get a touchdown with the first possession in overtime makes it harder to justify the position they find themselves in.
Drew Brees just turned 40 and I think it's only because Tom Brady is still playing that the "washed up/declining performance" narrative has escaped him. Granted, the Patriots have dominated both the headlines and the NFL for the greater part of two decades whereas the Saints have somewhat flown under the radar. With Drew Brees increasing in age, a limited receiving core and star running back Mark Ingram approaching unrestricted free agency this offseason, it'll be interesting to see if the Saints can continue their upward momentum.
28-3 jokes aside, the Atlanta Falcons had everything they needed for another playoff run when the season opened. 2016 MVP Matt Ryan was looking to bounce back off a below-average year for his standards alongside other star players Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman. The Falcons were another one of those teams that just found themselves plagued by injuries. Their defense took major hit after major hit which eventually placed them in the bottom half of the league by the end of the season.
Offense remained complicated for the Falcons as well. Running back Devonta Freeman missed four of the first six games of the season due to complications with his foot and knee before being placed on the Injured Reserve in Week 6. There's also been much to say about the Falcon's former offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian and the correlation between him and the Falcons' lower offensive outputs. The Falcons will now look to Drik Koetter, former head coach at Tampa Bay and Falcons offensive coordinator from 2012 to 2014, to revitalize their offense to its full potential.
The Panthers suffered from what was probably the biggest season-ending implosion in recent memory this season. By Week 9, the Panthers were 6-2, favorites to win their division with many media personalities taking them to win the conference and get a shot at the Super Bowl. From there, the Panthers lost 7 in a row to end their season 7-9 with a second-place finish in the division and missing the playoffs. The most concerning part is the teams they lost to. The Panthers fell to Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Atlanta during that stretch.
At some point, the psychology of losing that many games in a row probably had a lot to do with the Panthers crumbling. But as with most underperforming teams this season, injury definitely played a role as well. Star Tight End Greg Olsen ended his season during the team's Week 13 loss to Tampa Bay and Cam Newton suffered a phantom injury throughout most of the season.
Newton admitted that his injury played a large part in the team's outcome, and the Panthers were so convinced he was unable to play they let him rest for the last two games of the season. In a recent video posted to his YouTube channel, Newton reveals that he suffered some cartilage damage that limited his range of motion. In doing so, Newton was limited in both his accuracy and the distance he could throw downfield. Now that he knows the root of his issue, hopefully the Panthers will take the right steps moving forward to get him back on the field and get the team back to winning.
At the beginning of the season, the Tamba Bay Buccaneers surprised everyone in the football world the first handful of weeks into the season. After some absolutely outstanding play from veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was filling in for a suspended Jameis Winston, it really looked like Tampa Bay was going somewhere. Turns out that "somewhere" was to the bottom of the division. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ended their season 5-11.
A lot of the Buccaneers' woes have come from the quarterback position. After drafting Winston in 2015, he's been prone to play very inconsistently. This year alone, he threw as many interceptions (14) as he did touchdowns (19). Despite this, he has his highest QBR in his career at 71.8. It's hard to determine whether or not he's improved or not as many of his stats appear to move inversely. His yards, touchdowns and total interceptions have trended downward. On the other hand, his yards per attempt and completion percentages have trended upwards.
But fans and the team as a whole remain optimistic with the hiring of head coach Bruce Arians potentially being the key to figuring out Winston. Next season will tell, however, whether or not it's time to finally move on.