If not for a Top 10 defense, the Carolina Panthers might have found themselves with a Top 10 draft pick in 2015. Instead, the Panthers found themselves with their second consecutive NFC South Division title and a win in the playoffs over the Arizona Cardinals. Amazingly, Carolina started the season 3-8-1, but with four straight wins to close the season, the Panthers were able to win the NFL’s weakest division. It was defense that allowed them to do it and if they are to win the division a third consecutive time head coach Ron Rivera’s squad will once again do it with defense. NFL odds have the Carolina Panthers listed as +200 favorites to win the NFC South but besides that, are longshots to win the NFC Conference at +2200 and +4000 in Super Bowl predictions to win the championship.
The Panthers have arguably the best linebacking tandem in the NFL with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Add in rookie first-round draft pick Shaq Thompson and Carolina has the makings of one of the league’s best front sevens. The Panthers did let Greg Hardy and all of his drama go. Hardy was picked up by the Dallas Cowboys. Second-year DE Kony Ealy and third-year DT Star Lotulelei are future stars and will need to step up this season if the defense is to finish in the top ten for the fourth consecutive year. Carolina’s offense regressed in 2014 and was one of the reasons for the poor start. The Panthers will continue to be more of a run-first offense, though this season physical Jonathan Stewart will carry most of the load. The franchise’s leading rusher, DeAngelo Williams is now a Pittsburgh Steeler. Stewart led the team in rushing last year with 809 yards on 175 carries and was instrumental in Carolina’s final four games. The Panthers rushed for more yards than any team in the NFL over the season’s last quarter.
Quarterback Cam Newton enters his fifth season at the helm of the Panthers offense. He will need to improve upon his touchdown-to-interception ratio (18-12) if Carolina is to defy Super Bowl predictions as heavy underdogs. Newton has the threats to do so with WR Kelvin Benjamin and TE Greg Olsen. Both recorded 1,008 yards receiving in 2014, the first time since 1999 that the Panthers had two 1,000-yard receivers. Carolina added Ted Ginn and Jarrett Boykin to a very deep receiving corps that also features 12-year veteran Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Devin Funchess. An improved Newton and offensive line – the Panthers signed OT Michael Oher in the offseason – should help the Panthers in their quest for a third straight division title in the 2015 NFC South. The problem is the schedule. After a bye in week five, Carolina faces Seattle, Philadelphia, Indianapolis on Monday night, and Green Bay. If they can weather that storm, another division title would be well deserved.
Panthers Update (9/12/15): Carolina are now +5000 favorites in Super Bowl predictions, +2500 to win the NFC Conference and +275 to win the NFC South.