And then there were 16.
No, not those 16. We're talking about the NFL's Sweet 16.
With the bulk of major free agency activity in the rearview and the 2016 NFL Draft coming down the pike, it's a good time to take the temperature of where teams stand in the midst of this pivotal building -- and reloading -- period.
Every division has a favorite and a top challenger. In the spirit of March Madness, here is our Sweet 16:
Kirk Cousins is back and we like that. Cousins completed an NFL-best 69.8 percent of his passes last year -- and now, with a full offseason entrenched as the Washington starter, there will be no slip-up in his play. Head coach Jay Gruden and general manager Scot McCloughan proved to ownership that putting faith in the football people pays off.
The free agency period has been simply fantastic, with GM Jerry Reese and Co. addressing this roster's biggest need: talent. Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison were major pickups, albeit for big money. And at the Annual League Meeting, owner John Mara said Big Blue might not be done spending. If the Cowboys add a legit running back, a defensive stud and a backup quarterback for Tony Romo health insurance, they will be in the mix, too. But make no mistake: This division is still the weakest in football.
Minnesota did win the division last year -- and should be in position to be playoff-bound again in 2016. Mike Zimmer runs a tight ship, and the Vikings are sound in every phase. Minnesota further solidified the offensive line in free agency, adding a pair of strong run blockers in OG Alex Boone and OT Andre Smith. Teddy Bridgewater needs to take the next step, but this team should continue to ascend, with youth and talent all over the field.
Carolina just went 15-1 and made the Super Bowl -- and now the Panthers get back stud receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who missed the entire magic carpet ride after tearing his ACL in August. What a time to be alive! Savvy GM Dave Gettleman made sure All-Pro corner Josh Norman didn't go anywhere by applying the franchise tag. Plus, the Panthers did a nice job in retaining Charles Johnson and Mike Tolbert on very reasonable contracts. And I really like the underrated pickup of defensive lineman Paul Soliai for depth.
Yes, the Bucs. I'm going to be pretty open-minded when it comes to second place in the South, waiting to see what shakes out in the draft for Tampa, New Orleans and Atlanta. But the Bucs got better when they fired Lovie Smith, who went 8-24 in two years on the job. Dirk Koetter will continue to develop Jameis Winston. Doug Martin is back.And Tampa Bay's signing of Robert Ayers was overlooked in many places, but not here. The 30-year-old still has the ability to apply pressure off the edge -- something this team lacked last season. I'm excited to see Jason Licht run the war room with full autonomy for a draft.
I wrote it last week: The Cardinals' deal for Chandler Jones was a Super Bowl-caliber transaction for the great Steve Keim. And Evan Mathis was a quality addition to the O-line, which lost Jonathan Cooper in the Jones trade. Arizona is my Super Bowl favorite in the NFC. This team is loaded with talent, can play any style and is supremely well-coached.
The defense is still great. Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll are champions who have won a lot of games together.
New England is the team to beat in the AFC -- and it's not even close. The Patriots' deal with the Cards helped an area of weakness (the offensive line) and gave them the additional draft currency they needed after losing their first-rounder to Deflategate. Chris Long was a fine acquisition (following the dealing of Jones) -- as was Martellus Bennett, who'll team with Rob Gronkowski to form a terrifying 1-2 punch at tight end. Tom Brady is still playing at an elite level. The defense is really good. Bill Belichick is the best coach in NFL history.
I think. As of publishing, the Jets still haven't re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick, though I think it's a rather smart game of chicken. If Fitz comes back -- and if Muhammad Wilkerson plays for Gang Green in 2016 -- New York is still better than Miami and Buffalo. Matt Forte brings great leadership and could enjoy a very productive season on Broadway.
The Martavis Bryant suspension most certainly curbs my enthusiasm here, but there still should be enough firepower on offense to pile on the points. A healthy Le'Veon Bell -- with Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger -- will provide nightmares for the opposition once again. I thought the Ladarius Green signing was a quality, under-the-radar move.
Yeah, that's right: Baltimore's about to bounce back. I loved the Eric Weddle and Ben Watson signings. I loved the Joe Flacco contract extension/restructure. The return of injured starters will help. John Harbaugh is a great coach. I know Cincy is returning a very good team, but I'm taking a long look into the crystal ball here. Remember, Baltimore lost a lot of close games last year and suffered a ton of crucial injuries.
Indy has the advantage at quarterback. Jacksonville has the advantage everywhere else. The Jags have upgraded multiple positions in free agency, adding DL Malik Jackson, S Tashaun Gipson, CB Prince Amukamara and RB Chris Ivory, among others. Meanwhile, the Colts have added ... backup QB Scott Tolzien.
I think the defending champs have had a brutal offseason, losing Malik Jackson, Danny Trevathan, Brock Osweiler and Peyton Manning. If Mark Sanchez is the answer, I'd love to know the question. That said, the Denver defense remains great. And you have to believe John Elway will add someone better than Sanchez, right? But that player won't be better than Osweiler. Huge deal. Honestly, Denver could finish anywhere from first to third in the West this year.
Before Kansas City floods me with hate notes, I like what the Chiefs have done this offseason, beginning with the re-signings of veteran mainstays Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. Signing Mitchell Schwartz on the offensive line was genius. And Jaye Howard at just $12 million over two years? Yes, please! But as I wrote after the initial wave of free agency, the Raiders are crushing it this offseason, continuing the franchise's renaissance. Oakland pilfered Sean Smith from K.C. to fill a major weakness at cornerback. OL Kelechi Osemele and DE/OLB Bruce Irvin were two of the most coveted players in free agency -- both will be wearing silver and black in 2016. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper are young and special. Oakland is ready for prime time, ready for the big dance. And America loves a good Cinderella story ...