Carolina head coach Ron Rivera entered last season very much on the hot seat, and it was that much hotter when the team got off to 1-3 start. Had the Panthers lost at a bad Minnesota team in Week 6, it's quite possible Rivera would have been fired right then. However, the Panthers routed the Vikings 35-10 and took off from there, winning eight straight overall. The Cats stamped themselves as Super Bowl contenders with a Week 10 victory in San Francisco and then again the following week with a thrilling Monday night win over the visiting New England Patriots. A victory in Week 16 at home against New Orleans put the Panthers in the driver's seat for the NFC South title, and they would win the division for the first since 2008 with a 12-4 mark. Alas, a home playoff game against those 49ers was a disappointment as the Panthers turned the ball over twice in a 23-10 loss.
QB Cam Newton had arguably his best season, setting career highs with 61.7 percent completions and 24 touchdowns. The defense was one of the best in the NFL. It ranked second overall in yards and points allowed (15.1) behind only the Seahawks. Linebacker and tackling machine Luke Kuechly was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the year (he had a whopping 24 tackles in that Week 16 win against New Orleans), and Rivera was named the NFL Coach of the Year. That earned him job security in the form of a three-year extension.
Key Offseason Moves
Carolina's biggest move was keeping stud defensive end Greg Hardy off the market by slapping the franchise tag on him. He had 15 sacks in 2013. The team also addressed the defensive backfield in free agency by signing Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud (65 tackles), Saints safety Roman Harper (39 tackles) and Cardinals cornerback Antoine Smith (two interceptions). To help the offense, the team imported tight end Ed Dickson (25 catches, 273 yards) from Baltimore and receivers Jerricho Cotchery (46 catches, 602 yards, 10 TDs) and Jason Avant (38 catches, 447 yards, two TDs) from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, respectively.
The losses were significant. The greatest receiver in franchise history, Steve Smith, was cut. Two of the team's other top receivers, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn, also moved on. That's a major position of need now. Two top defenders, safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, are gone. They combined for 140 tackles, seven sacks and four interceptions. Perhaps worst of all, Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross decided to retire. He not only protected Newton's blind side but was a leader in the locker room.
2014 Schedule (all
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Tampa Bay, 4:25 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, Detroit, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Pittsburgh, 8:30 p.m.
Week 4: Sunday, Sept. 28, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, Chicago, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, at Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Seattle, 1 p.m.
Week 9: Thursday, Oct. 30, New Orleans, 8:25 p.m.
Week 10: Monday, Nov. 10, at Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 12: BYE
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Minnesota, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, Cleveland, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Carolina has a schedule that ranks as the 11th easiest in the NFL with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .473. It has six games against playoff teams.
This schedule can definitely be broken into "thirds." The first five games are against clubs that missed the postseason, and with three at home a good start is a priority. The Panthers were 7-1 in Charlotte last year. The regular-season loss was to open the season against eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle. Carolina is a 2.5-point favorite at sportsbooks for the Week 1 game in Tampa. The Cats had little trouble with the Buccaneers last year, sweeping them by a combined score of 58-19. They should be better in 2014 under Lovie Smith, however. The Panthers are unlikely to be an underdog until Week 4 in Baltimore. That of course is against Steve Smith, who has already said he can't wait to stick it to his former team.
The second "third" of the schedule is one of the toughest stretches for any team in the NFL with five straight against playoff clubs starting with Week 6 in Cincinnati. The only one of that group Carolina faced last year was the Seahawks, who won 12-7 in that season opener. It was the second-fewest points scored all season by the champs. It figures to be another defensive slugfest.
The final "third" is much easier starting Week 11 against Atlanta, a team the Panthers swept in 2013. On the final Sunday of the season Carolina won in Atlanta 21-20 to clinch the division and the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The Panthers set a team record by sacking Matt Ryan nine times in that game. The Week 12 bye is tied with Pittsburgh for the latest of the season. The Saints game could be crucial for the division and it's the second straight year the teams meet Week 14 at the Superdome. New Orleans won there 31-13 in 2013 but then lost two weeks later at Carolina 17-13.
NFL free picks: 'Under' 8.5 wins is our recommended NFL pick. The offense wasn't exactly dynamic in the passing game in 201, and now Newton's receiving corps could be the worst in the NFL. The defense will have to keep the Cats in most games again. It doesn't help matters that Newton will miss all offseason workouts after March ankle surgery. He should be OK by training camp.