The Carolina Panthers, a team that went through 14 games undefeated a year ago, are on the ropes after another tough loss. This one came when Cam Newton was unable to play, Derek Anderson got interception-happy, and the Buccaneers beat them at home on a late field goal.
If we can “segway” to the other results, it’s been a very weird season, where the various maladies have popped up, and nothing has been consistent.
Yes, they got torched against Atlanta, Josh Norman got to celebrate, and the Panthers’ pass defense looked like they morphed into the Saints.
They’ve held opponents to less than 200 yards passing a game in the other games, including three losses.
They lost to Denver in a close game, where it looked like they would win late. Cam took hits, and the field goal missed.
They lost to the Vikings in a game where they turned the ball over a lot and Cam got beat up. They held the Vikings to 211 total yards.
In fact, the Panthers have out-gained their opponent in four games, with the Atlanta disaster being the only exception. The main culprit? They are -7 in turnovers, and are -8 over the last three losses.
Last year at almost this time, I wrote that the Seattle Seahawks would still make the playoffs, after they fell to 2-4 after yet another disastrous collapse. To that point, Russell Wilson was getting beaten up and hit constantly, the offense was struggling late, the defense was blowing leads, and the only wins were a close, controversial one over Detroit, and a win over Jimmy Clausen (then with Chicago).
Carolina’s had disastrous collapses late, Cam Newton’s been getting beaten up and missed this week with a concussion, and the only win was over a team with Blaine Gabbert.
I’m less confident than when I announced that the Seahawks would still emerge and go on a run, but I’m still going to go against the tide today and say Carolina will play better and rebound, and will make the playoffs.
This has been a very good team over the last three years. Cam Newton was MVP last year and will be back. That loss last night put them on the ropes, but I expect a response. Under Ron Rivera, Carolina is now 13-17 in the first five games of a season, and 35-19-1 for the rest of the year. Just two years ago, with Cam Newton banged up in a car accident and everyone writing them off, they rattled off a run late to win the division after dropping to 3-7-1.
It won’t be easy. Looking at the landscape of the NFC, they might need 10 wins. Nine is a possibility if the NFC East and NFC North teams cannibalize each other and bunch up. That means going 8-3 or 9-2 over the rest of the season.
The Panthers have a lot in common with the rare teams that have turned things around after a 1-4 start. Those teams were plagued by turnovers too (average: -6.3 turnover margin). They tended to play teams that would reach the playoffs (2 games against future playoff participants on average), and the Panthers have likely played three teams that are strong candidates for a bye (Minnesota, Atlanta, Denver). And they have a history of success. Of the 8 teams to reach the playoffs after a 1-4 start since 1990, 5 of them won 19 or more games the previous two seasons, and two of those that didn’t were the beneficiaries of weak divisions where no one else had a winning record.
Carolina goes to New Orleans this week. Cam Newton should return, be pissed off about people criticizing his choice of transportation, and be ready to dance. The Saints’ D is a good way to get healthy, and then there’s the bye week. After that, it’s a home rematch of last year’s NFC Title Game. Those are two must win games. But if Carolina can win those, they are very much right in the mix.
The NFC East teams with a winning record have all already played the Browns. They all still play the Packers and Vikings in the conference matchups. Those teams will have to face each other (Cowboys-Eagles still have two games to come). Carolina’s path almost certainly requires a win over Arizona now–the other team that could jump up into the mix. But it’s not out of the question. Doubt Cam Newton at your own risk. I know it’s not popular, but I’m not jumping off yet.