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Carolina Panthers 2012 NFL Preview

2012 NFL Previews: Tampa Bay BucsIndianapolis ColtsNew England PatriotsSeattle Seahawks |Minnesota VikingsSt. Louis Rams |Cleveland BrownsArizona CardinalsSan Diego ChargersAtlanta Falcons | Chicago Bears | Oakland Raiders

The Carolina Panthers were an entertaining follow last year, if not a winning one. Before last year, I wrote about how 2008 and 2009 probably meant the Panthers would be better than your typical #1 overall pick team last season. (The same philosophy applies to the Colts this year, by the way):

Those five teams won 6.8 games the next year. Carolina, by the way, is going off the board at 4.5 wins this year. I think they’ll go 6-10 against what appears to be a tough but manageable schedule, though doing a little better than that with a late run as the team improves wouldn’t surprise me.

Carolina hit exactly on that 6 win mark, going over the Vegas win total with the late surge. It could have been better, as a 2-6 mark in close games got them off to only a 2-8 record in the first ten games despite playing competitively in most of them. They were better in some ways (I thought Newton would improve the passing game substantially, but not that much) and worse in others (the defense, partially thanks to injuries, fell apart).

This year, the Panthers again have what would appear to be a tough schedule but manageable schedule, or at least one with lots of toss up games. I already wrote about how I thought they should have had more primetime games. Carolina is exciting, and Cam Newton is a big draw. I see a fair amount of people expecting some sort of sophomore slump. I don’t see any reason to believe in such myths. Here’s what I noted about teams like Carolina who had a losing record because they both scored and gave up a lot of points:

There have been eight other teams who averaged scoring at least 24 points a game and giving up at least 24 a game, and finished with a losing record. None of them had a losing record the following year. They averaged 9.6 wins. Carolina is going to be somewhere along the spectrum of team that shows dramatic improvement and leaps to double digit wins if the defense makes strides and they are average in close games, to still entertaining in shootouts even if the defense is still below average. They are a draw either way.

When I go through the Panthers schedule and projections, I end with between 8 and 10 wins. Will they win those close games this year, particularly against Atlanta and New Orleans? Will the defense improve just enough? Those are going to be the difference between showing promise and getting into the playoffs as a wildcard. The defense should be better due to injury return and the drafting of Luke Kuechly. The defensive line is a concern on the interior, but if they can just approach average, they should be in playoff contention. Cam Newton isn’t going anywhere, and in cases like these, I’d rather bet on a year early than a year late. The middle of the NFC is tough, and wild card spots won’t be easy to come by. Carolina should be right there.

[photo via US Presswire]

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