At 4-6, the Carolina Panthers playoff hopes are slim, but here are five reasons why they can still take the NFC South crown from the Atlanta Falcons.
In 2015, the Carolina Panthers nearly put together an undefeated regular season behind the arm and legs of MVP Cam Newton. They eventually lost the Super Bowl to the Denver Broncos, but the Panthers looked like a NFC juggernaut for years to come.
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This season, the Panthers have been arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL. They are 4-6 and not much seems to be working on either side of the ball. They are behind both the Atlanta Falcons and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC South and own a loss against every division opponent.
Some fans may look at the recent injuries to Ryan Kalil, Luke Kuechly, and Mario Addison as signs the team is cursed, but there’s always a reason for hope. The Panthers must face the Oakland Raiders this week and the Seattle Seahawks next week, so they face an uphill battle during the final stretch of the regular season.
However, here are five reasons for Panthers fans to believe in a comeback this season.
Oct 10, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers fans cheer in the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers defeated the Panthers 17-14 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Three-Straight Division Championships
The Panthers have been the most dominant team in the division over the past three seasons, coming into the 2016 campaign with three-straight division crowns. It all started when Carolina won 12 games in the 2013 season, winning over the New Orleans Saints with a clutch Domenik Hixon touchdown to grasp the division crown.
They slipped into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record a year before going 15-1 in 2015 as the best team in the entire NFL. Carolina has faced adversity before and Ron Rivera and Co. know what it takes to win this division. The competition is stiff this year, but again, Carolina had to top an 11-5 Saints team for Rivera’s first NFC South championship in 2013.
Carolina has won just four out of their 10 games so far this season, but history tells us they are usually the top team. The argument that the Panthers are not as strong without Josh Norman is a weak one, because they didn’t have a shutdown corner in 2013 when they won 12 games. Captain Munnerlyn could play and Drayton Florence was surprisingly effective as a 33-year-old, but they are hardly star corners.
If anyone in the NFC can buckle down and win some important games, it’s Carolina—or Seattle. But Carolina has been just as consistently dominant in their division over the past three years.
Nov 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) stands on the sidelines during the game against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Saints 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Yes We Cam
Cam Newton hasn’t been brilliant this season. In fact, the man has been quite ordinary statistically. Newton is averaging just 7.1 yards per attempt with an interception on 2.3 percent of his passes, which yields a QB Rating of 80.9.
Look, Newton has played better than the numbers indicate and he is still undoubtedly one of the 10 best quarterbacks in this league. The problem is that he hasn’t been Superman and the Panthers desperately need him to carry the offense.
Jonathan Stewart has struggled to just 3.3 yards per carry on the ground and the pass-catchers behind Greg Olsen have been frustratingly inconsistent. We’ve come to expect up-and-down performances from players like Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown, but even Kelvin Benjamin has cooled after a hot start to the season. Meanwhile, Devin Funchess has actually looked worse as a sophomore than he did as a rookie and that hasn’t made it any easier for Newton.
Cam was the clear 2015 MVP for a reason and I wouldn’t bet against him leading the team to clutch wins. For as much as people ripped him for the fact that he did not try to recover a fumble in the Super Bowl, Newton is one of the most resilient players in the league. The man has achieved team success at every level of football and is a special talent. Not only is Newton an elite ball-carrier, but he is one of the best passers in the league; it just took people some time to figure it out.
Nov 13, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (13) runs against Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters (22) during the second half at Bank of America Stadium. The Chiefs won 20-17. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
Lost A Lot Of Close Games
The Panthers have been a bit unlucky this season, because several of their losses have been in close ones. In Week 10, they lost to the Kansas City Chief on a crazy play in which Benjamin had the ball ripped out of his hands by cornerback Marcus Peters. They lost an heartbreaker in Week 1 to the Denver Broncos and their losses to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New Orleans Saints came with a margin of just three points.
While Carolina has also won a few close games, such as their three-point wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Saints, they haven’t been blessed this season. The Panthers own a 4-6 record, but they should have a 5-5 record per Pro-Football Reference’s expected win-loss.
That may not seem like a big difference, but one game means a lot in the NFC South right now. The Buccaneers are 5-5 and second in the division, so a 5-5 record would tie the Panthers with the Bucs.
Although Carolina lost to Dirk Koetter’s team earlier this season, they face again late in the year. If both teams have the same record but Carolina wins that second game, then they flip the tiebreaker over to their side. The same goes for their Week 16 date with the Falcons, who currently lead the division at 6-4.
Nov 17, 2016; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) drops back to pass in the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers defeated the Saints 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Just Two Games Back
Although the Panthers have a losing record and may have to run the table in order to guarantee that they win the NFC South, the fact of the matter is that they aren’t far off the pace. Carolina is just one game behind the second-place Buccaneers and they are two games behind the division-leading Falcons (6-4).
The Panthers face the Falcons in Week 16 and the Buccaneers in Week 17. Before that, they must play the Raiders, Seahawks, San Diego Chargers, and Washington Redskins. That is not an easy schedule, but the Panthers have defeated some tough teams during Rivera’s tenure in Carolina. Last season, the Panthers were a juggernaut and they pretty much have the same offense in place. All they might need is improvement from key players like Newton, Stewart, and Benjamin, and they could be in a position to steal the division.
What should make Carolina fans somewhat optimistic is the fact that they have shown some progress already. After losing four-straight games to push their record to 1-5 before the Week 7 bye, the Panthers have won three of their last four. They probably should have won all four of their games, but Peters literally stole a victory away from Benjamin and the Panthers.
Their Week 12 game against the Raiders will likely result in a loss and most people could say the same for their Week 13 tilt against the Seahawks. However, if the Panthers can win one of those two games, they could be in business. They haven’t produced a marquee victory to this point, so a win over Oakland or Seattle could do wonders for their morale.
Nov 6, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis (58) stops Los Angeles Rams tight end Lance Kendricks (88) after a pass play in the first half of the game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Turnover Battle Improvement
Winning the turnover battle is key and huge swings in turnover differential can explain a team’s record. When the Panthers were 1-5 to start the season, they forced just eight turnovers in those six games. They actually forced three turnovers in their close Week 1 loss to the Broncos and three turnovers in their Week 2 win over the San Francisco 49ers, so they had a meager two turnovers during the subsequent four-game losing streak. Meanwhile they turned the ball over 16 times on offense in those six games, which is an average of 2.7 turnovers per game. Yeah, that’s awful.
After the bye, the Panthers have done a much better job in the turnover battle. They have given the ball up just three times and their only multi-turnover game came in their 20-17 loss to the Chiefs. Of course, that could have easily been a one-turnover game, if not for that timely takeaway from Peters.
Not only have the Panthers turned the ball over less than once per game in their past four contests, but they have also forced a turnover in each of those games for six in total.
That’s not a great average, but it would be 24 turnovers over a 16-game season if you extrapolate a pace of six turnovers forced in four games. Based on 2015 data, 24 turnovers forced would be 16th in the NFL. That’s much better than their eight-turnover pace during their four-game losing streak, which would have been dead last in the NFL in 2015.
While it is concerning that the Panthers have been unable to overcome large swings in turnover differential, the fact is that it is difficult to make up for having the ball much less. The splits in turnover differential all look like cases of bad luck for the Panthers and those close losses during their losing streak could have easily been close wins with a little more luck.
Panthers fans should be happy that the team is fifth in the league in interceptions forced (10) and, while they are 27th in interceptions thrown, five of Newton’s interceptions came in the first three weeks. He has cut down on turnovers with just one interception in the last four games, which mirrors the change in turnover differential we’ve seen.
Newton is leading the charge when it comes to cleaning things up on offense, and soon he should help lead the rest of the offense to re-establishing its playmaking form from 2015.