The Panthers danced their way to the Super Bowl, winning 15 of 16 games during the regular season. But they found an unwilling partner in the Super Bowl as the Broncos sent their legendary quarterback, Peyton Manning, out with the trophy.
Another year, however, finds the Cam Newton-led Panthers ready for a repeat.
But the National Conference will provide plenty of road blocks — namely the Cardinals, Packers, and Seahawks.
But unlike the AFC, where everybody but the Browns are beginning the season with high hopes, nearly all NFC teams will have a chance to join the party.
Here’s a breakdown of the teams as they enter camp.
Open camp: Wednesday, Bourbonnais, Ill.
2015: 6-10 (last)
Additions: ILBs Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, RT Bobby Massie, QB Brian Hoyer, OLB Leonard Floyd, G Cody Whitehair
Losses: RB Matt Forte, TE Martellus Bennett, S Antrel Rolle, G Matt Slauson, LT Jermon Bushrod, offensive coordinator Adam Gase
Needs: Offensive and defensive lines need to jell after overhauls. The Bears also will have to overcome the loss of two key offensive playmakers after choosing not to offer Forte a contract and trading Bennett (Patriots). The development of WR Kevin White also will be worth watching. Last year’s first-round pick, he missed his rookie season with stress fracture in his left shin. The Bears are banking on him to form a dynamic tandem with Alshon Jeffery.
Expectations: They have a long way to go before planning any Super Bowl celebrations, though John Fox’s teams have history of making jumps his second season (Carolina seven wins in 2002, 11 in 2003; Denver eight in 2011, 13 in 2012).
Open camp: July 28, Allen Park
2015: 7-9 (third)
Additions: WRs Marvin Jones and Jeremy Kerley, rookie OT Taylor Decker, rookie DT A’Shawn Robinson, OG Geoff Schwartz
Losses: WR Calvin Johnson, RB Joique Bell, DE Jason Jones, LB Stephen Tulloch, CB Rashean Mathis, SS James Ihedigbo
Needs: QB Matthew Stafford has to work on chemistry with a receiving corps without Johnson, especially veteran newcomers Jones and Kerley. Detroit must figure out how to protect Stafford better and open more holes for the running game with a reshaped line that includes the highly touted Decker. Defensively, coaches are hoping any end — perhaps Devin Taylor — emerges to start opposite rising star Ziggy Ansah. The Lions also need a defensive tackle — ideally, Robinson — to pair with veteran Haloti Ngata.
Expectations: The Lions had a losing record in seven of Johnson’s nine years. They will be projected to have another sub-.500 season without the retired superstar drawing double-coverage almost every snap. Bob Quinn, a first-time general manager, will not be under pressure to win right away. Coach Jim Caldwell, though, will have to show his boss he can help the franchise move in the right direction.
Open camp: Monday, Green Bay, Wisconsin
2015: 11-5 (2nd, lost to Cardinals in Divisional)
Additions: TE Jared Cook, DL Kenny Clark, LB Blake Martinez, OL Jason Spriggs
Losses: DL B.J. Raji, WR James Jones, FB John Kuhn, QB Scott Tolzien, TE Andrew Quarless, CB Casey Hayward
Needs: The Packers will proceed slowly with WR Jordy Nelson as a precaution, though coach Mike McCarthy has marveled about Nelson’s work ethic in rehab. RB Eddie Lacy hopes to bounce back after slimming down during the offseason. LB Clay Matthews is headed back to outside linebacker, meaning the Packers are looking for stability on the inside. Fourth-round pick Blake Martinez will get a look.
Expectations: If Nelson comes back healthy as expected, and Lacy returns to form, the Packers should be potent again. They’re always a threat to make a deep playoff run with Aaron Rodgers under center. The return of DL Letroy Guion and addition of first-round pick Clark help ease the loss of Raji. But Matthews should be happy to be back outside to rush passer.
Open camp: July 29, Mankato, Minn.
2015: 10-6 (1st, lost to Seahawks in wild card)
Additions: Rookie WR Laquon Treadwell, LG Alex Boone, RT Andre Smith, SS Michael Griffin, rookie CB Mackensie Alexander, LB Emmanuel Lamur
Losses: WR Mike Wallace, SS Robert Blanton, CB Josh Robinson
Needs: They need to allow QB Teddy Bridgewater to relax behind a beefed-up line and develop a better deep ball, and foster chemistry between him and first-round pick Treadwell. The key is keeping RB Adrian Peterson fresh at age 31. The health of the 27-and-under stars on defense — LBs Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, FS Harrison Smith, CB Xavier Rhodes, and DT Sharrif Floyd — is critical.
Expectations: With a division title in Mike Zimmer’s second year, the only place to go now is deep in the playoffs. Further progress depends on Bridgewater, along with better blocking up front. A deep, determined team, fueled by Zimmer’s aggressive, deceptive defensive scheme, has its sights set on the Super Bowl.
Open camp: July 30, Oxnard, Calif.
2015: 4-12 (last)
Additions: RB Ezekiel Elliott, LB Jaylon Smith (out for season, knee), DEs Benson Mayowa and Charles Tapper
Losses: DEs Greg Hardy and Jeremy Mincey, DT Nick Hayden
Needs: QB Tony Romo and WR Dez Bryant need time together after a fourth straight offseason without much — and coming off an injury-plagued year. Camp will be the first chance for fourth overall pick Elliott to take hold as the lead back with Darren McFadden out (elbow). The Cowboys have to figure out a pass rush with young DEs DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory suspended the first four games (substance-abuse). Middle linebacker also is in question with Rolando McClain out (10 games, substance-abuse).
Expectations: The Cowboys mostly kept their players during the offseason, indicating a belief the roster is closer to 12-4 from 2014. A healthy Romo and Bryant could back up that thinking. Dallas didn’t do much to add playmakers on defense, although CB Orlando Scandrick returns after missing last season with a knee injury. They need more from underachieving CBs Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, and would get boost if LB Sean Lee generates more turnovers.
Open camp: Wednesday, East Rutherford, N.J.
2015: 6-10 (3rd)
Additions: DE Vernon, DT Harrison, CBs Janoris Jenkins and Eli Apple, LB Robinson, WR Sterling Shepard
Losses: CB Prince Amukamara, WR Rueben Randle, DE Robert Ayers, DT Markus Kuhn, S Brandon Meriweather, G Geoff Schwartz, LB Jon Beason.
Needs: LT Ereck Flowers and the offensive line need to establish a running game to make the offense consistent. Find a receiver to play opposite Odell Beckham Jr. And the defense needs to mesh all those new pieces, get DE Jason Pierre-Paul closer to what he was before the 2015 fireworks accident.
Expectations: If all that money spent on defense pays off, the Giants might have bought their way back into the playoffs. Much is expected of Apple and Shepard — Apple is expected to be at least a nickel cornerback, and Shepard has the potential to be another playmaker. Veteran WR Victor Cruz remains a question mark after playing in six games the past two seasons (injuries).
Open camp: Monday, Philadelphia
2015: 7-9 (2nd)
Additions: QBs Carson Wentz and Chase Daniel, CB Leodis McElvin and Ron Brooks, G Brandon Brooks, S Rodney McLeod, WR Rueben Randle, OL Stefan Wisniewski
Losses: RB DeMarco Murray, LBs DeMeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso, CB Byron Maxwell
Needs: Determine starters at wide receiver, left guard, two of the three cornerback spots, and kicker. They also need to get acclimated to new coach Doug Pederson’s offense and new defense under Jim Schwartz. Building chemistry with new faces on both sides is critical. QB Sam Bradford must remain healthy.
Expectations: Rebuilding is more realistic than a playoff push, but there’s no dominant team in the East, so you can’t rule out contention. Giving Bradford $22 million guaranteed over two years means management didn’t want to disregard this season. The defense has potential for success under Schwartz, but there could be some growing pains.
Open camp: July 28, Richmond, Va.
2015: 9-7 (1st, lost to Packers in wild card)
Additions: CB Josh Norman, TE Vernon Davis, S David Bruton Jr., rookie WR Josh Doctson, rookie LB Su’a Cravens
Losses: RB Alfred Morris, DT Terrance Knighton, FS Dashon Goldson, DE Jason Hatcher, QB Robert Griffin III
Needs: Without another team coming in for joint practices, the new-look defense must come together with Kirk Cousins and Co. as the main competition. Integrating Norman and Bruton is a job on defensive end, while the offense needs to figure out whether Matt Jones can be every-down running back. After shoring up the passing game, they may look to get Jones some help.
Expectations: On paper, Washington is better, but this season hinges on a remade defense and Cousins’ progress. Washington faces a first-place schedule instead of a last-place one. Cousins will be motivated to prove he deserves a long-term deal while playing on the franchise tag.
Open camp: July 28, Flowery Branch, Ga.
2015: 8-8 (2nd)
Additions: C Alex Mack, WR Mohamed Sanu, LB Courtney Upshaw, DE Derrick Shelby, rookie S Keanu Neal, QB Matt Schaub, rookie OLB Deion Jones, rookie TE Austin Hooper
Losses: LB Justin Durant, WRs Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson, S William Moore, NT Paul Soliai
Needs: Sanu and second-year WR Justin Hardy need to establish themselves as complements to Julio Jones. Mack is being counted on to provide leadership at center, something the line has lacked since Todd McClure was pushed into retirement (2012). QB Matt Ryan, 31, should benefit from a stronger line, but needs to cut down on poor decisions. The defense still looks to establish a pass rush after finishing last with 19 sacks.
Expectations: A defense that was horrid in 2014 improved to the middle of the pack in Dan Quinn’s first season. Upshaw, Shelby and Neal should help provide more improvement, while a second year in Kyle Shanahan’s system should lead to better play and fewer mistakes from Ryan. The schedule looks difficult in the final season at the Georgia Dome, but slight improvement could have the Falcons contending for wild card.
Open camp: July 28, Spartanburg, S.C.
2015: 15-1 (1st, lost to Broncos in Super Bowl)
Additions: CBs James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, DT Vernon Butler
Losses: CBs Josh Norman and Charles Tillman, WR Jerricho Cotchery, S Roman Harper, DE Jared Allen
Needs: Carolina needs to figure out its cornerback situation following departure of last year’s starters Norman and Tillman. The Panthers drafted three rookie cornerbacks hoping to fill void and will get Bene Benwikere back (broken leg). Carolina is counting on Kony Ealy to step up as pass rusher after an outstanding performance in the Super Bowl, but generating a rush off the corners could be a concern.
Expectations: The Panthers didn’t do much in free agency outside of re-signing some core players to extensions, including OL Ryan Kalil and Michael Oher. The team feels its offense will be even better with return of WR Kelvin Benjamin, who spent last season on injured reserve (torn ACL). Carolina still has the most dangerous quarterback in the league in Cam Newton, who seems to be improving with each season, and perhaps the best linebacker corps with Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson.
Open camp: Rookies reported, veterans Wednesday, White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.
2015: 7-9 (3rd)
Additions: TE Coby Fleener, LB James Laurinaitis, rookie WR Michael Thomas, rookie DT Sheldon Rankins, S Roman Harper, DT Nick Fairley
Losses: WR Marques Colston, TE Benjamin Watson, RG Jahri Evans, RB Khiry Robinson, S Rafael Bush
Needs: The Saints want to see if promising rookie Thomas or lanky third-year pro Brandon Coleman is the best replacement for Colston. They also need to figure out if 2015 top pick Andrus Peat, drafted as offensive tackle, fits at guard without a clear-cut successor to Evans. The interior defensive line rotation remains uncertain as top pick Rankins aims to contribute immediately and Fairley aims to salvage his career. Questions also abound at safety with Jairus Byrd recovering from a knee injury.
Expectations: The Saints appeared headed in the right direction at the end of last season, winning three of four. Efforts have been made to shore up the defense with a combination of young talent and veteran leaders. They must cut down on mental errors that were prevalent in recent seasons.
Open camp: July 28, Tampa, Fla.
2015: 6-10 (last)
Additions: Rookies CBs Vernon Hargreaves III and Brent Grimes, DEs Noah Spence and Robert Ayers Jr., K Roberto Aguayo, LB Daryl Smith, G J.R. Sweezy
Losses: G Logan Mankins, LBs Danny Lansanah and Bruce Carter, CB Sterling Moore, K Connor Barth
Needs: With Lovie Smith out as coach, the Buccaneers head in a new direction on defense with ex-Falcons coach Mike Smith taking over as coordinator. They figure to have at least three — maybe four — new starters on defense, so installing a new scheme and getting offseason acquisitions acclimated will be priority.
Expectations: Dirk Koetter was promoted from offensive coordinator to coach, largely because of his relationship with QB Jameis Winston and the prospect of continued growth offensively. But unless the defense takes significant steps forward, it’s difficult to envision a playoff berth on the horizon.
Open camp: Wednesday, Glendale, Ariz.
2015: 13-3 (1st, lost to Panthers in NFC Championship)
Additions: OLB Chandler Jones, G Evan Mathis, DL Robert Nkemdiche, CB Tyvon Branch, C Evan Boehm
Losses: S Rashad Johnson, CB Jerraud Powers, OLB Dwight Freeney, C Lyle Sendlein, G Ted Larsen
Needs: Coaches will keep a close eye on RT D.J. Humphries, a first-round pick in 2015 who didn’t suit up last season. New RG Mathis is being counted on to help. Branch will battle incumbent Justin Bethel at cornerback. And if Tyrann Mathieu isn’t back from knee surgery by the opener, several players will compete for safety spots.
Expectations: The Cardinals have placed expectations as high as they can get. Anything but winning a Super Bowl will be a disappointment. Coach Bruce Arians emphasize it, in his colorful way, after Arizona addressed some weaknesses in offseason, particularly in trade for Jones.
Open camp: Rookies on Wednesday, veterans July 29, Irvine, Calif.
2015: 7-9 (3rd)
Additions: QB Jared Goff, CB Coty Sensabaugh, TE Tyler Higbee, WR Pharoh Cooper
Losses: CB Janoris Jenkins, DB Rodney MacLeod, LB James Laurinaitis, DLs Chris Long and Nick Fairley
Needs: Aside from finding out whether rookie QB Jared Goff is ready to be an immediate starter, the Rams must identify and train replacements for defensive regulars lost to free agency and cost cutting. Alec Ogletree is taking over middle linebacker responsibilities for Laurinaitis, the leading tackler in franchise history. E.J. Gaines or Sensabaugh should step up to take Jenkins’ starting job.
Expectations: Returning to the Los Angeles Coliseum with tremendous amount of local excitement, they signaled their desperation to win now by mortgaging chunk of the future to draft Goff. Yet, Los Angeles stuck in the division with two of the best, and the league’s worst offense probably can’t be magically fixed by a rookie quarterback. The Rams would love to end playoff drought during homecoming season, but they’ll need some good breaks.
Open camp: July 31, Santa Clara, Calif.
2015: 5-11 (last)
Additions: LG Zane Beadles, CB Rashard Robinson, WR Aaron Burbridge, OG Joshua Garnett, DE DeForest Buckner
Losses: TE Vernon Davis, WR Anquan Boldin, G Alex Boone, KR/RB Jarryd Hayne
Needs: The 49ers must figure out whether Colin Kaepernick is healthy enough — let alone reliable — to win back the starting quarterback job in coach Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense or whether Blaine Gabbert will keep the spot after being promoted last November.
Expectations: With the loss of Boldin, San Francisco’s receiving corps lacks experience behind Torrey Smith. That will provide rookie Burbridge and other young wideouts a chance to prove themselves. General manager Trent Baalke might be criticized for doing little in free agency, though he has said he likes the current roster.
Open camp: July 30, Renton, Wash.
2015: 10-6 (2nd, lost to Panthers in Divisional)
Additions: G Germain Ifedi, T J’Marcus Webb, DT Jarran Reed, DE Chris Clemons, rookie RBs Alex Collins and C.J. Prosise, CB Brandon Browner
Losses: RB Marshawn Lynch, T Russell Okung, LB Bruce Irvin, G J.R. Sweezy, DT Brandon Mebane
Needs: They need to develop some stability in the offensive line as QB Russell Wilson has become a strong pocket passer. They need a backup quarterback.
Expectations: Seattle’s depth appears the closest it’s been to the Super Bowl-winning season in 2013. But there’s one glaring weakness: offensive line. There are also unknown answers when TE Jimmy Graham and RB Thomas Rawls will return from major injuries. Even with those questions, there’s every reason to believe the Seahawks will remain among the elite.