I think the 49ers could be better in 2019. I’m not buying significant improvement for Carolina and Tampa Bay.
There is talk that Panthers QB Cam Newton's accuracy will improve with new mechanics. They hope this also will alleviate the stress on his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder. I'll believe it when I see it.
In Tampa Bay, the narrative is that new coach Bruce Arians will get more out of QB Jameis Winston. Perhaps, but I don't see Winston overcoming his tendency to commit boneheaded turnovers at the worst possible times. There is nothing to suggest drastic improvement for probably the only defense worse than the Falcons' in 2018, especially with edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul on the shelf with a neck injury until at least October.
I could be wrong about all that. The NFL’s obsession with parity means at least some of those teams are likely to overachieve because there’s a lot of luck involved. Barnwell provides logical reasons for why those teams might improve, and he’s got a track record of being right about this.
But if the 49ers, Panthers and Bucs all improve it doesn't mean they'll be better than the Falcons. The betting markets put Falcons a notch above them with an over/under of 8.5 victories (the under is even money and the over pays $10 for every $12). San Francisco's over-under is at eight victories, the Panthers and Jets are at 7.5 and the Bucs are at 6.5.
Two good reasons to like the Falcons to win more than eight games are better health on defense and a revamped offensive line. I think the schedule is another incentive to take the over on Falcons victories. But if Barnwell is right and those three teams are in line for significant improvement, then a playoff run for the Falcons could be harder than it looks.