Leading up to the start of the 2015 NFL season I will be previewing last year’s playoff teams and their chances for making it back to the postseason
Record: 7-8-1 (1st, NFC South)
Key Additions: Devin Funchess (41st Overall Pick, 2015 Draft), Cameron Artis-Payne (174th Overall Pick, 2015 Draft), Shaq Thompson (25th overall Pick, 2015 Draft)
Key Losses: Thomas Decoud (Release)
The Carolina Panthers are an NFL Jekyll and Hyde. Everything about them tells me they should be a division champion, first-round bye team at best; a Wild Card home playoff host team at worst.
Carolina has won the division two years in a row, going 19-12-1 behind a defense that has been one of the best in the NFL during that same span. Few have played the two-time, reigning NFC champion Seattle Seahawks better than the Panthers so if you’re looking for tests as to what this team can be look no further than the last two regular season match ups. The Panthers dropped those meetings by a combined 9 points (12-7 in 2013 and 13-9 in 2014).
In 2014 the Panthers were an elite team dressed in mediocre clothing.
What Went Right
I would end it right there but for the sake of not seeming lazy in my writing I’ll expound a bit. The evolution of the 25-year old Newton is fascinating to watch because we’re seeing a young man go from simply a Quarterback to a true leader of men in the NFL. He’s not just going through the motions anymore, he’s understanding that if he wants to be great in the NFL and for his team to be great he has to set the tone and bring everyone up with him. What do I mean?
Think about electric wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin last season before he played a down in the league. What were the reports on him? Don’t remember? I’ll remind you that Benjamin was seen as a bit of a first-year project coming into this league. It would have been very easy for that narrative to bring him down and keep him from fulfilling his potential last year. What Newton did in bringing him in and making sure that Benjamin understood he was the man in the passing game had as much to do with Benjamin’s 1,000-yard, 9 touchdown rookie year as anything.
Besides Newton’s play and leadership, the Panthers also had another decent year defensively. Luke Kuechly, the 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year, anchors the unit and did so tremendously last season. With Kuechly, Charles Johnson, Thomas Davis, and Star Lotulelei I don’t foresee too many issues with the Panthers creating some problems on the defensive side of the football.
What Went Wrong
One of the biggest problems for the Panthers was playing at a high level against teams that were also considered elite. In 2014 the Panthers played the Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Seahawks, Packers, Eagles, Falcons (division rival) and Vikings (up and coming). In those games their combined record was 1-8-1, including a seven game win-less streak and a combined score of 289-187. That isn’t going to get it done no matter how you look at the situation. If you average 19 points a game and allow 29 points per game during any stretch there is plenty of equal blame to go around.
Why Am I Skeptical?
For the exact reasons I just listed. Everything about this team’s roster points to elite, but they didn’t play like it consistently enough to warrant them really being a part of that conversation.
Their running game is set to feature Jonathan Stewart, no one will question his talent only his ability to stay healthy and on the field. Their draft was uninspiring, but they have parts that present intrigue and will have to rely on Devin Funchess a lot sooner with news of the unfortunate ACL injury to Kelvin Benjamin; which is a definite blow to what the Panthers wanted to accomplish this season.
I was talking to a friend of (admittedly a Panthers fan) who said he could see 10 to 11 wins based on the schedule this season. That was before Benjamin’s injury.
A look now sees the scheduling Gods being cruel to the Panthers again for an extended stretch after their bye week. During that period they will play the Seahawks, Packers, Colts, Eagles, Falcons (twice), Cowboys, Giants, and Saints. That’s not a friendly road for them, it’s also not something I see them being able to maneuver on a week-to-week basis.
It will take a lot more than seven wins to win the NFC South in 2015 and I don’t see the Panthers being able to get there given I have them pegged for exactly that many wins. There is a lot to build around on this team, but that next step will have to wait a year.
Record Prediction: 7-9, miss playoffs
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