The Carolina Panthers may have been the NFL’s biggest conundrum last season.
They were a division champion, a playoff team, even a wild card winner. The Panthers went 4-0 in December, then started January with a 27-16 home win against the Arizona Cardinals, their first postseason victory since 2005. This was a promising team led by a young, star quarterback in Cam Newton.
They were also a sub-.500 team, winning by default in the historically dreadful NFC South. The Panthers had a seven-game winless streak before December, including some horrid defeats like their blowout loss at Lambeau Field after falling behind 28-3 at halftime. This was absolute dreck, a roster that had no business playing in January.
So which are they? The cellar or the contender? That’s a question, and an identity, the Panthers will try to answer this fall. They’ll get a mulligan against the Packers when Green Bay travels to Charlotte on Nov. 8. Here’s what to expect from that matchup.
Three things to know about the Panthers
» Cam’s the man: The Panthers have had one of the league’s worst offensive lines for a couple of years now, but that hasn’t derailed Cam Newton. Newton, a towering figure at 6-feet-6 and 260 pounds, is already a rookie of the year, two-time Pro Bowler and playoff winner. While the NFC South was undoubtedly terrible last year, that Newton led the Panthers on a late-season winning streak to seal their division title was impressive. The Panthers and Newton agreed to a five-year, $100 million contract in June that will keep the franchise quarterback in Charlotte through 2020. Only 26 years old, Newton’s contract was a wise investment.
» A line drawn: Considering their investment in Newton, and that their $100 million quarterback has been sacked more than 150 times in four years, the Panthers selecting a first-round offensive lineman seemed like a lock when the draft came this spring. It didn’t happen. Instead, they waited until the fourth round to draft Daryl Williams, a guard out of Oklahoma who could eventually start at right tackle. The Panthers will rely on free-agent pickup Michael Oher — yes, the same Michael Oher from “The Blind Side” — to anchor the line at left tackle. The Panthers dearly need Oher and Williams, if not starting right tackle Mike Remmers, to represent an upgrade.
» Another conundrum: The Panthers’ defense excelled — or was at least mediocre — in most defensive categories last season. They allowed 339.8 yards per game, which ranked 10th in the league. Their 228 passing yards allowed per game ranked 11th, and their 112 rushing yards allowed per game ranked 16th. They tied for 10th with 26 turnovers forced. On paper, this was not a bad defense. But when it came to the most important defensive stat — the scoreboard — the Panthers ranked near the bottom of the league. Their 23.4 points allowed per game ranked 21st. That’ll need to improve this season, and it should.
Packers schedule glimpse
Week before: at Denver, Nov. 1
Week after: Detroit, Nov. 15
On the horizon: at Minnesota, Nov. 22
Coach: Ron Rivera (32-31-1, fifth season).
2014 record: 7-8-1, 1st NFC South.
Scoring offense: 21.2 points per game (19th in NFL).
Total offense: 346.7 yards per game (16th).
Scoring defense: 23.4 points allowed per game (21st).
Total defense: 339.8 yards allowed per game (10th).
Series: Packers leads 9-4 (1-0 postseason).
Last meeting: The Packers jumped out to a 28-3 halftime lead last year, and they never looked back. Their 38-17 win was the first of six straight losses for the Panthers, a streak that should’ve derailed any opportunity for them to advance into the postseason. Aaron Rodgers was almost perfect, completing 19-of-22 passes for 255 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 154.5 rating (158.3 is a perfect score). That’s as many touchdowns as incompletions.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.