A brief look at the Packers' Week 15 opponent, the Carolina Panthers. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Last in a 13-part series on the opponents the Green Bay Packers will face during the 2017 regular season.
GREEN BAY - A year ago, the Carolina Panthers were on the cusp of entering a season in which they were considered premier Super Bowl contenders.
Behind 2015 league MVP Cam Newton, the Panthers were coming off an NFC championship and, perhaps even more impressive, 15-1 regular-season record. The Panthers won their first 14 games in 2015, flirting with perfection before breezing through the playoffs.
Then they fell one field goal shy of winning Super Bowl 50.
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So there was good reason the Panthers were an NFC favorite before last season. Instead, they lost five of their first six games, falling out of the playoff race before the end of October, eventually finishing 6-10.
The Panthers will try to pick up the pieces this fall. Perhaps the biggest conundrum in the NFC, it’s hard to know what to expect from the Panthers in 2017. The Packers' trip to Carolina on Dec. 17 could carry major playoff implications for both teams – or it could be mere formality.
Here are three things to know about the Panthers.
» Bringing home the Peppers: While Hall of Fame selections in the NFL technically aren’t inducted as members of a specific franchise as they are in baseball, team identification remains a poignant piece of their careers. When Julius Peppers is enshrined in Canton, quite possibly on the first ballot, fans will first remember his time with the Carolina Panthers. While Peppers’ time with the Green Bay Packers might’ve helped push Peppers over that threshold – he had 25 sacks and was selected to one Pro Bowl as an injury replacement in three seasons, with an even bigger postseason impact – the Panthers remain his home. Peppers, who ranks fifth on the NFL’s career sacks list, was drafted second overall by Carolina in the 2002 draft. He had 81 sacks while playing his first eight seasons with the Panthers. So when Peppers signed with Carolina as a free agent this spring, it provided the opportunity for a future hall of famer to end his career at the place it began.
» No more Norman: Maybe in theory it seemed like a good idea, but the biggest difference from 2015 to 2016 was the Panthers' decision to release cornerback Josh Norman. Even if Norman didn’t duplicate his All-Pro 2015 season during his first year in Washington, his absence left a clear void in the Panthers' secondary. After finishing 11th in pass defense in 2015 (235 pass yards allowed per game), the Panthers dropped to 29th last season (268). The Panthers led the NFL with an opposing passer rating of 73.5 in 2015, then dropped to 21st with a 92 opponents’ rating last season. Adding to the pass rush up front with Peppers might help, but the Panthers will need to be much sharper in the secondary this fall.
» Still Superman? Cam Newton was a deserving MVP in 2015. Behind a career-high 99.4 passer rating, Newton threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. He also maintained the weapon that separates him from most quarterbacks, rushing for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns. Across the board, Newton’s production dipped significantly in 2016: 75.8 rating, 3,509 yards, 19 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, 359 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns. At his best, Newton’s dual-threat ability is unmatched in the NFL. His ability to move the chains with his legs while sparking big plays downfield with his arm presents one of the more difficult matchups for any defense. There’s no bigger factor influencing the Panthers' 2017 season than whether they get 2015 or 2016 Cam Newton this fall.
Packers schedule glimpse
Dec. 17 at Panthers, noon, Fox
Week before: at Browns, Dec. 10
Week after: vs. Vikings, Dec. 23
On the horizon: at Lions, Dec. 31
Coach: Ron Rivera (53-42-1, 7th season).
2016 record: 6-10, fourth NFC South.
Scoring offense: 23.1 points per game (15th in NFL).
Total offense: 343.7 yards per game (19th).
Scoring defense: 25.1 points allowed per game (26th).
Total defense: 359.8 yards allowed per game (21st).
Series: Packers lead 9-5.
Last meeting: A furious, late comeback attempt fell short when the Packers lost 37-29 at the Panthers on Nov. 8, 2015. The Packers trailed 27-7 at halftime after a disastrous start – and 37-14 with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter – but rallied to pull within one score with possession on the Panthers’ 4-yard line with two minutes left. Ultimately, the Packers’ fourth-and-goal play ended with Aaron Rodgers tossing an interception to Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. Rodgers completed 25 of 48 passes for 369 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Newton added to his MVP season completing 15-of-30 passes for 297 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.