Earlier this summer Panthers center Ryan Kalil bought an ad in the paper stating that he thought the Panthers could make it to the Super Bowl. Obviously with Kalil doing his best Don Draper impersonation, this fired up the fans of the team with thoughts of returning to the big game almost a decade after the Panthers’ first appearance in a Super Bowl. Well, there is one way and one way only for Carolina to get Super Bowl bound, and that is to make the playoffs. So how do the Panthers make the playoffs?
In order for the Cats to get into the tournament, they are going to have to do one of two things: either win the division or grab one of the two wild card spots. While I think the Panthers have a shot at winning the NFC South, it is a long shot, and so the route of the wild card is more likely. This year I think ten wins can get you in, and eleven would secure you a spot. Let’s take a look at the Panthers schedule and break down all of the games to figure out where they can put together ten wins. I am going to break up the games into three different categories: must-wins, prove you are worthy, and steal one.
Must Win: At first glance there are five games in the schedule that jump out at me as must-wins based on how teams played last year: both Tampa games, Seattle, Oakland, and Washington. These are five games that the Panthers have to win if they want to have any shot at sniffing the playoffs, and based on last year these are games they should win.
Starting with game one at Tampa, this should be a good barometer for the Panthers to see where they are at after the preseason. Carolina has been in Florida most of the week practicing due to the DNC being in Charlotte. This has been a good time for the team to bond and get used to Florida heat before having to go on Sunday. While I do think Tampa should be better than they were last year, a lot of question marks still surround them: new coach, new receiver, and so on and so on. The crowd should be a factor, since as of writing this the Bucs haven’t even met the number of tickets to not have it blacked out. It shouldn’t be a problem for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations to win here.
Of the remaining four games, three of them are at home, with Tampa again in week 11, Seattle in week 5, and Oakland in week 16. These games should be no problem for Carolina, with Oakland and Seattle having to head completely across the country to play, and although Tampa will be better by week 11 the Panthers will have to improve by then as well. That leaves the Washington game in week 9. While Robert Griffin III is being hyped as the next Cam Newton, I’m not quite sure I am ready to buy into the hype yet. Sure, I think RGIII will be a good quarterback at some point, but I think the comparisons to Cam are not fair. When Cam Newton came into the league and started breaking rookie records, those records had been there for some time, and there is a reason they were there for some time. Quarterback is the hardest position in the NFL, and rookies don’t simply come in and dominate. Think of the greats right now: Rodgers, Brady, and Brees. All of them took time to develop. I feel like Cam’s rookie season was something of an anomaly. Don’t get me wrong – it was one that I enjoyed watching – but it is not something that is going to happen every year. For every one Cam Newton there are a dozen more JaMarcus Russels. If the Panthers want to make it to the playoffs they will have to take care of business in Washington.
Prove You Are Worthy: The first five wins should be fairly easy. Getting to five more will be a little more challenging. In the second tier of matchups I have San Diego, Kansas City, Dallas, Atlanta twice, and Philly. Out of these seven games, the Panthers will need to win at least three, so their chances are better than fifty- fifty.
I’ll start with the two AFC West teams. San Diego is in somewhat of a make-it-or-break-it season, and while throughout his career Phillip Rivers has shown signs of brilliance he has also seen struggles. They have lost receivers to both free agency and injury. Also they are no longer with Mike Tolbert as he is now a Panther, and Ryan Matthews is starting the season already banged up in the running game. Throw in the fact that this is Ron Rivera’s former team, and that should be plenty of motivation for the Panthers to win. It also helps that this game is week 15, right about the time Norv Turner decides to flush the proverbial toilet on the season. Kansas City on the other hand should be a bit improved this year from last. The Chiefs will be getting two very big pieces of their team back from injury in both Jamaal Charles at running back and Eric Berry at corner. The Chiefs will be with somewhat new head coach Romeo Crennel, as he was upgraded from interim last year. Now the Chiefs are very much like the Panthers and are on the fringe of being good, but there is a reason people say the NFC and AFC West are the two worst divisions.
Now let’s talk about Dallas. I almost moved Dallas up into the third tier of games after their win on Wednesday but I decided that it’s only one game and I should stay with my gut reaction. The Cowboys are a team that was a field goal away from making the playoffs last year, but they are also a team that in the past decade has failed to stay consistent from season to season or even week to week. The Cowboys remind me of an EKG machine: up and down, up and down. The other factor with the Cowboys game is that it comes in week 7 right after the Panthers’ bye, giving them two weeks to prepare. Give Rod Chudzinski two weeks and he can figure how to attack any defense.
While we are on the NFC East, let’s talk about the Eagles. Just like last year they are a favorite to win the division. This puzzles me because they were a huge disappointment last year, and from what I can tell nothing has changed. So far I am not drinking the green Kool-Aid. Not to mention the fact that nobody knows if Michael Vick will be healthy by the time they play the Panthers. Then throw in the fact that this will be Cam Newton’s first Monday Night Football game and I really like Carolina’s chances here.
That leaves us last but not least with our fellow divisional team, the Falcons. The Panthers struggled with Atlanta last year, losing both games to them. However, being that they have improved their defense with the addition of Luke Kuechly and returning veterans Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, they should be better equipped to handle them defensively.
So where do the three wins come from in these seven games? If I were a betting man I would say San Diego, Philly, and one of the Atlanta games. I could be wrong about which three but the fact of the matter is out of these seven games we must win three, no matter who it is against. If we win four, well, that, as we say here in the South, is gravy.
Steal One: This tier is the most difficult of the three. The Panthers will have to win two of the “steal one” games to get to ten wins. So we have New Orleans, New York, Denver, and Chicago.
Out of these four teams, Chicago is actually the only team not to make the playoffs last year. This was partly due to the injuries they suffered at the end of the year, and barring those injuries I think the Bears would have rolled into the playoffs and caused some noise while they were there. The Panthers have also struggled against the Bears in the past, and it will be the same this year. Now last year Carolina made Matt Forte look like the reincarnation of Walter Payton, but I think the improved defensive line with Ron Edwards should at least slow the rushing attack down. However, the Panthers will have to open up their offense against one of the league’s stingiest defenses if they want to come away with a “W.”
Many will argue that I should not have the Broncos in this upper tier of teams, and they may be right. There are question marks all over Peyton Manning and his return after four neck surgeries. From my point of view the Broncos made the playoffs last year behind Tim Tebow. Now whether you are a Tebow disciple or not, you can’t argue that Peyton Manning is not a better quarterback. So if the Broncos could go 8-8 and win a playoff game with Tebow, what do you think they can do with Manning, even if he isn’t the Manning that was winning MVPs? But whatever you think Denver can be this year this is a Panther blog and let’s keep it that way. Now to tell me that Carolina won’t be jacked up for this game more than any other game this season would be a bunch of bunk and hooey. Along with Peyton, this will be the first time the Panthers will see former coach John Fox. After the way Fox left and his final season (2-14), the veterans will be more than ready to dole out some payback.
New York will come into town in our only home prime time game of the season. Now you have to give respect where respect is due, and the Giants are the reigning Super Bowl champs That is why I have them in this upper level. However, if they look like they did against Dallas on Wednesday, then we should be able to handle them fine. The other good news is that we play the Giants week 3, which, given their m.o. that they start off slow and finish up strong, could lead to the Cats capitalizing on playing them early in the season.
Last but not least are the Saints. Now as I write this news is coming out that the players that were suspended due to bounty gate will now be allowed to play. The coaches are not allowed to return, but the added defensive players will be to the Saints’ advantage. The offseason drama the Saints have had to endure is going to one of two things. Either it is going to really weaken the team and we will see how important Sean Payton is to New Orleans, or it is going to motivate the hell out of them and make a quarterback that threw 5476 yards last year angry. I would say Brees’ performance last year was Hulkish, and if anybody saw the Avengers movie then you know you don’t want to make the Hulk angry. As a Panthers fan I hope that it weakens the Saints, but I fear that it will anger them, especially the players who had their suspensions overturned.
So to make the playoffs, Carolina will have to steal two of these games. My guess is the New York and Denver games will be the best bets to do that, as I think the Saints will sweep us and win the NFC South again. Also, as I thought I heard in the credits of the Avengers, “Errr Hulk think Panthers secondary not so good.”
So my guess is ten and you’re in, eleven and gravy baby. As for Kalil’s prediction, I say let’s just get in and I’ll discuss what the Panthers will have to do then in January.
As always feel free to send me your thoughts, praise and hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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