No team had ever repeated as NFC South champion until Carolina did it last season. What are the chances that Cam Newton's Panthers make it 3 in a row? We examine their NFC South finishing odds.
Recapping Panthers' 2014 Season
Carolina was a very good team in 2013, led by a dominating defense, and finished 12-4 to win the NFC South for the first time since 2008. I expected a major step back last season after what was a very underwhelming offseason. I guess I was technically right as Carolina finished just 7-8-1 but that was enough to join the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only teams to win a division with a losing record in a 16-game season. The other two teams to make the playoffs with a losing record both made it in 1982 when the NFL only played a nine-game season due to a strike.
The Panthers looked dead in the water last season at 3-8-1, on a six-game losing streak and off a 31-13 blowout in Minnesota. Then a light went on as the Panthers destroyed the Saints 41-10. Carolina narrowly beat visiting Tampa Bay and Cleveland in Weeks 15-16 to set up an NFC South winner-take-all game in Atlanta in Week 17. The Panthers were underdogs at sportsbooks but rolled 34-3. Roman Harper and Tre Boston returned interceptions for touchdowns and Carolina recorded six sacks. A 33-yard fumble return by Thomas Davis set up another touchdown. Newton was just 10-for-16 for 114 yards and a TD in the game, but he didn't have to do much with how good the defense was.
In the wild-card game against Arizona, the Panthers had the advantage of facing third-string Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley. The Panthers won 27-16, holding the Cardinals to an NFL playoff-record-low 78 yards, forcing three turnovers and sacking Lindley four times. Newton threw for 198 yards and two touchdowns, but did turn the ball over twice, while Jonathan Stewart ran for 123 yards and a TD.
Predictably, Carolina lost as a big NFL betting underdog in the divisional round at Seattle, 31-17, although the Cats played pretty well as Seattle led only 14-10 entering the fourth quarter.
Newton played 14 games last season, completing 58.5 percent of his passes for 3,127 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 picks. The 82.1 rating was the worst of his career. The Panthers were just a middle-of-the-pack offensive team and probably always will be under Newton. He's not a super-accurate guy. The team is more conservative than most and relies on an excellent defense.
Panthers' Offseason Moves
The biggest move was locking up Newton on a new extension. He got a five-year deal worth $103.8 million with Newton receiving $67.6 million over the first three years. It has $60 million in guarantees, including $31 million in the first year of the deal. His total contract averages about the same per year ($20.75 million) as Matt Ryan's deal with Atlanta. It's more guaranteed money than recently-signed extensions by Andy Dalton Ryan Tannehill and Colin Kaepernick. And I'd rather have Newton than those guys. ESPN's recent tier rankings listed Newton in Tier 2 and I'd say that's accurate.
Most rank Carolina's offseason as below-average. The Panthers were able to re-sign solid tight end Greg Olsen and added free agents such as receivers Jarrett Boykin and Ted Ginn, running back Jordan Todman, offensive tackle Michael Oher and cornerback Charles Tillman. Oher might be the most important of those as he is the projected starting left tackle and he was not good last year in Baltimore (or the year before in Tennessee). The biggest free-agent loss was running back DeAngelo Williams. That means injury-prone Jonathan Stewart is the clear No. 1 now, which should concern Panthers backers. In the draft, the Panthers might have reached for linebacker Shaq Thompson in the first round and took Michigan receiver Devin Funchess in Round 2.
Carolina has the NFL's sixth easiest schedule this season as its opponents were a combined 111-145 last year for a winning percentage of .434. There are only four games against 2014 playoff teams.
Frankly, there's no excuse for Carolina not to be 4-0 entering its Week 5 bye. The Panthers open as 4-point favorites at Jacksonville, will likely be favored at home in Weeks 2-3 vs. Houston and New Orleans, and then again in Week 4 at Tampa Bay. The only time the Panthers have opened 4-0 was in 2003. That season, they opened 5-0 en route to reaching the Super Bowl.
Easily the toughest four-game stretch comes out of the bye: at Seattle, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Indianapolis, vs. Green Bay. Three top Super Bowl contenders and a likely playoff team in the Eagles. The Cats then get a two game break in Weeks 10-11: at Tennessee and home to Washington.
The season closes with four of six away: at Dallas (Thanksgiving), at New Orleans, vs. Atlanta, at NY Giants, at Atlanta, vs. Tampa Bay. None of those final five teams had winning records in 2014. It should also be noted that Coach Ron Rivera's teams are 15-3 in December.
NFL Free Picks: The Panthers have a wins total of 8.5, with the 'under' a -140 favorite. They are +135 to make the playoffs and -165 not to. Carolina's odds to win the South are first at +225, second at +200, third at +220 and fourth at +600. I am not a fan of this club despite a friendly schedule. The defense will be good again, but there are questions at running back, receiver and the offensive line. There's only so much Newton can do himself. Go 'under' the wins and the Cats finish third, missing the playoffs.