Is there a more difficult-to-decipher team in the NFL than the Carolina Panthers? They’re equal parts dangerous and clueless. One week, their coach Ron Rivera is on the hot seat; the next, it looks like the Panthers have a shot to make the playoffs. Here are their last three results:
* 38-0 whitewash of the Giants
* 22-6 loss in Arizona
* 35-10 romp in Minnesota
The Panthers are only 2-3, but with a formidable defense (Top 10 in many categories, including 8th in yards per play allowed), and an occasionally-potent offense, here’s why the Panthers have a legitimate shot to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008:
1) The Atlanta Falcons are done. No defense, no Julio Jones, and the Falcons will not contend for a playoff spot. The Panthers played the Falcons very close last year, losing one at the buzzer and winning handily at home. Carolina should sweep Atlanta in the NFC South year. With four games left against Atlanta and Tampa, the Panthers should be aiming for a 4-0 mark in those games.
2) The upcoming schedule will build confidence in the young team: vs. St. Louis (don’t read too much into the Rams’ win in Houston), at winless Tampa, vs. struggling Atlanta. The Panthers should be 5-3 heading into a pivotal 2-game stretch: at San Francisco and vs. New England.
3) If the four division winners are Dallas, Green Bay, New Orleans and Seattle, can you confidently say who the other two wild card teams will be? Your choices: Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Carolina, San Francisco.
Ultimately, the Panthers reaching the playoffs will fall upon the broad shoulders of their 3rd year QB, Cam Newton, who is eligible for a lucrative extension in the offseason. In defeat, he can look very, very bad (three interceptions, one fumble, seven sacks in loss to Arizona; one interception, six sacks in loss to Buffalo). But still, he’s 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, runs like a linebacker, and has a howitzer for an arm.
It seems like a lock that the Panthers would pay handsomely to retain the No. 1 draft pick from 2011, and a run to the playoffs would certainly mean Newton gets a max offer.
More good news for Panthers fans: Jonathan Stewart
comes off the is eligible to come off the PUP list this week and will fortify the 8th best running attack in the league (135 ypg). Sure, he’s been a letdown since his 1,133 yard, 10-TD season in 2009, but keeping DeAngelo Williams (10th in the NFL in rushing yards) fresh for later in the season will be crucial.
Because I like balance, I’ll offer this word of caution: The Panthers two wins have come against teams that are a combined 1-10.
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