Tuesday 12 December 2017 / 04:19 AM

FAMILIAR PATHS FACE NFC SOUTH RIVALS

The dawn of NFL football is finally upon us, with preseason football in full swing and the pads back on. And with that spring of new football comes new hope for each of the 32 NFL teams. But over in the NFC South, there’s also some looming shadows that will rear their head in the 2017 campaign for a pair of rivals.

The Super Bowl runners-up from two seasons ago, the Carolina Panthers, had their share of mess-ups in 2016. The Panthers took a massive step back after their letdown in Super Bowl XLX against Denver.

Cam Newton got banged up from the beginning and never looked the same, and the defense took a tremendous fall from grace following their divorce from stud corner Josh Norman and some injuries to Luke Kuechly and the front seven.

The Panthers roll into 2017 sans their longtime general manager David Gettleman and their defensive coordinator, who left to take a head coaching job with the Buffalo Bills.

Newton himself took the bulk of the criticism, especially following a bad showing in the Super Bowl. The QB looked lost in 2016, and was criticized relentlessly for appearing “whiny” as the Panthers stumbled to an abysmal start and out of the postseason race before it even began.

The Panthers had one of the youngest and most promising teams in the NFL during their run to the top, but saw that dashed in a hurry as pressure and lofty expectations mounted.

Entering 2017, the Panthers face the iron of an upset ownership. Jerry Richardson moved on from the GM, and has made inclinations that he plans to make more changes should this season go astray. The Panthers have brought on franchise favorites from the past in Captain Munnerlyn and Julius Peppers, and have doubled down on their previous GM to lead the interim duties.

But the pressure is on the offensive side of the ball, with the Panthers taking Christian McCaffrey to lighten the load on Newton. Gone is the Super Bowl receiving core, with Ted Ginn and Philly Brown moving on after the Panthers declined to offer them again.

Promising young receiver Kelvin Benjamin is on the chopping block, with the receiver entering camp overweight and disappointing last season.

Cam and the Panthers have cap concerns and contract problems following this year, and with Newton’s massive extension growing shorter by the day, the Panthers are feeling the pressure to return back to their previous glory.

Just a few hours south of Charlotte and are conference rivals the Atlanta Falcons, who know exactly what the Panthers are feeling.

After a blazing 2016, the Falcons rolled into Super Bowl XLXI with the hopes of toppling the Patriots dynasty. Instead, the Falcons experienced the worst collapse in Super Bowl history.

Fresh off an offseason of ridicule and criticism, the Falcons now look ahead to 2017 with optimism and skepticism. The Falcons are very much at a do-or-die crossroads, with momentum never higher than before, despite their Super Bowl loss.

The Falcons feature the best receiver in football, a reigning MVP, and a defense that improved immensely. All of those are back, but the Falcons don’t feel the same. They are the presumptive favorites in a damaging NFC South, but with an offseason of tough flack, everyone is passing the blame.

The Falcons now face a climb that revolves around getting better on defense. Not to mention the ever-growing concern that Matt Ryan could be a one-hit wonder, with his prowess relying on Julio Jones.

And with Ron Rivera’s story from hero to hot-seat up the road, the Falcon’s Dan Quinn knows all too well how quickly the tide can turn in the NFL. A disappointing campaign in 2017 can spell the end of the good feelings form 2016, as the Falcons fanbase deals with the most embarrassing loss in recent Super Bowl memory.

Not only that, but the Falcons are facing a looming problem in the offseason. This Falcons club is the most cash-strapped in the NFL, with the roster leaving them the least cap space of any team in the NFL next offseason, and their MVP QB set to hit free agency in two years.

With so little leeway for down-time, it appears that the Falcons have to produce this season, otherwise find themselves rebuilding to get back to the near-shot they had before.

The NFC South will be a bloodbath in 2017, with two of their teams looking at maybe their last shot at finding consistency.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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