Parity and season-to-season shifts are just one of the many things that make the NFL compelling, and while we can always count on parity, sometimes it's difficult to predict which teams will regress after enjoying stellar seasons just a few months prior.
For the sake of argument, let's clarify "regression." Going from 12-4 to 11-5 is not really a regression. Yes, one fewer win can often be the difference between a division title and the wild card, but for all intents and purposes, a team that goes 11-5 could have just gotten unlucky in a game down the stretch.
Going from 12-4 to 10-6 is a noticeable regression, however. Anything more than a two-game swing is something that will make fans notice, and it will likely make them upset.
There will be a few fanbases in this situation during the 2014 season. The following three teams are in line for a regression.
The Carolina Panthers were one of the best stories of the 2013 season. After beginning the year 1-3, they rattled off eight straight wins and put themselves in contention for the Super Bowl out of the NFC.
During the offseason, though, the Panthers lost a good number of targets. Olsen returns, and tight end Ed Dickson joins him, but the core of wideouts is now headlined by rookie Kelvin Benjamin and veterans Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant.
Benjamin is in line for the most targets of all wide receivers on the roster. He is a big receiver, standing 6'5". This will aid Newton given how erratic he can be with the football from time to time, but it's unsettling to rely on a rookie wideout—especially for a team coming off a 12-4 campaign.
The defense is still a great unit, but it's the offense here that should worry fans.
Plus, when taking a look at the rest of the NFC South, it's obvious that the other teams have improved. The New Orleans Saints went ahead and improved their defense with Jairus Byrd and their offense with Brandin Cooks. The Atlanta Falcons surely won't go 4-12 again (barring injuries, of course), and even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers look as if they can win six games.
This puts the Panthers in a tough position. A 10-6 record is likely for the defending division champs.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs were another big surprise last season, finishing 11-5 in Andy Reid's first season as head coach. They got inspiring play from the defense, and Alex Smith was just enough to keep the offense moving. Jamaal Charles was, of course, outstanding.
This year, things will be different, however. For one, their schedule is almost unfair. They play nine games against teams that were more than solid in 2013—two against the Denver Broncos, two against the San Diego Chargers, one against the New England Patriots, one against the San Francisco 49ers, one against the Seattle Seahawks, one against the Arizona Cardinals and one against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Referencing schedule strength might not seem like a logical argument given one team's ability to play well on any given day, but the teams listed above are all very good. If the Chiefs escape those nine games with even a 5-4 record, we all should be impressed.
There are other issues with this team, too. For one, the secondary is atrocious. Eric Berry is one of the better safeties in the league, but beyond him there isn't much. Marcus Cooper, Chris Owens and Phillip Gaines are all unproven, which means divisional rivals like Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers will enjoy picking them apart.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller is a fan of most things K.C., but even he acknowledged his worries about the unit:
I like a lot of things in Kansas City. The BBQ, the Boulevard beer, the Royals...but I can't like this Chiefs secondary. Yikes.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 17, 2014
Charles is going to have to put up unbelievable numbers to give this team an extra boost this season, but it won't be easy with defenses keying in on him. Regardless, 11-5 probably isn't in this team's future. A record of 9-7 is more plausible.
The Minnesota Vikings didn't exactly set the world on fire last season, going 5-10-1 and winning games against the Steelers, Washington Redskins, Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions. Their tie came against the Green Bay Packers.
Frankly, their five wins and tie were impressive. Matt Cassel and Christian Ponder were the primary signal-callers, and their struggles to stay productive have been well documented in recent memory. Those two are back in 2014, but there's a new name joining the group. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater is also fighting for snaps.
With three question marks at quarterback, the Vikings aren't in a good position for 2014. Allowing Bridgewater to start and learn for 2015 is the smart move, but that still might not happen. Tom Pelissero of USA Today wrote about the quarterback conundrum after Bridgewater's great game on Saturday:
"Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he hasn't made a decision on who will start the opener. But he also wouldn't commit to even giving Bridgewater another turn with the starters in next week's all-important third exhibition at Kansas City, saying coaches would discuss it Sunday."
Throw in a tough schedule against experienced squads—the Patriots, Saints, Packers (twice), Lions, Bears (twice) and Panthers—things could get worse. Also, teams like the Falcons, New York Jets and Miami Dolphins could surprise.
Whether Bridgewater starts or not, it's hard to see this team winning more than three games in the bottom of the NFC North.
Follow Kenny DeJohn on Twitter: @KennyDeJohn_BR