By dispatching the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers climbed to 3-5, which places them 2.5 games behind Atlanta for first place in the NFC South. Carolina also is two games behind Washington for the final playoff spot in a crowded NFC postseason picture, one in which the Panthers currently sit last among all competitive, non-Chicago Bears/San Francisco 49ers teams.
That said, the Panthers went 15-1 in the regular season last year, and many (though not all—more on that in a second) of the key players from that campaign are still around. And while there are plenty of credible teams among the NFC playoff contenders, there aren't any dominant forces (at least not until Seattle fixes Russell Wilson). In theory, the window is open for Carolina to come all the way back from a 1-5 start. The franchise's end-of-season outlook depends on a two things: fixing regression and their future schedule.
Games against Case Keenum notwithstanding, Carolina's major drop-off from last year has been at cornerback. After shocking the NFL over the summer by rescinding Josh Norman's franchise tag, the Panthers came into the season with journeymen and rookies at the position. Per Football Outsiders' DVOA statistics, here's how that's worked out:
Without Norman, the Panthers have gone from the best to the worst in so many categories that it's almost impossible to overstate how big the loss has been. Part of that, of course, has come from the scheme adjustments you make when you no longer can trust your top cornerback to reliably cover one player on one side of the field. Carolina was also relying on a lot of unheralded players to hold together, and that hasn't happened.
Safety Kurt Coleman was the latest in a long line of defensive backs that the Panthers have brought off the street and turned into stars. But without consistent play in front of him, Coleman (and fellow safeties Tre Boston and Michael Griffin) have been exposed, faltering in single coverage and botching crucial decisions. For example, here's Coleman getting over late to cover Julio Jones in Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons:
Carolina's offense has similarly sagged from last season's highs. Quarterback Cam Newton has been inconsistent, and his supporting pieces have not elevated their games. Second-year second-round pick Devin Funchess, the wideout from Michigan who was the team's "MVP of OTAs," has just 11 receptions on 28 targets. Receiver Kelvin Benjamin has come back after missing all of 2015 with a knee injury, but he has been no more efficient than Ted Ginn was last season.
Newton has been taking big hits in game after game, and his play simply hasn't been as statistically good as it was last year, when he was the only thing this offense actually had going for it beyond Greg Olsen. Newton has missed two games, and his accuracy has faltered at times when he's played. Even beyond his pure completion percentage, he has been spotty on placement in certain games.
Most important, the Panthers went from charmed to cursed in a perhaps predictable important area: turnovers. Carolina was plus-20 in turnover differential last season, and took the ball away from their opponents on a league-leading 19.6 percent of their drives. Turnover margin, though, is a fickle mistress. The Panthers sit 28th in the statistic so far this year, at minus-7. Neither extreme is how you would forecast Carolina going forward, as turnovers tend to regress towards the mean in larger sample sizes.
The other villain in Carolina's fall from grace has been the schedule. Last year's Panthers were gifted with the Charmin-soft AFC South (combined record: 25-39) and NFC East (combined record: 26-38). This year, Carolina is dealing with the AFC West (23-12 through Sunday's games), and NFC West (11-17, but weighed down by the 49ers). That means that getting back into the NFC playoff hunt involves rolling off at least a 6-2 run against a scary rest-of-season schedule:
I'd say maybe Tampa is a gimme opponent, but even then, Jameis Winston and Mike Evans give the Bucs a chance to do something spectacular in any given game. And the Bucs did already beat Carolina at home (albeit with the Panthers starting Derek Anderson under center). Every other team the Panthers will face brings either a statistically good quarterback or a scary defense to the table—sometimes both.
A careful read of Carolina's season reveals some reasons for optimism. As bad as they've been this year, the Panthers still have franchise stars like Newton and Luke Kuechly to boost the overall skill level of the team. You can toss out some of the team's poor offensive production as the result of playing Anderson. The most promising sign might be that Carolina has found more consistent corner play over the past few weeks, as rookie James Bradberry is finally healthy. If cornerback can go from a position of weakness to a position of adequacy, that should help.
When NFL teams discuss building depth through the draft, this is exactly what they're hoping to avoid: over-relying on a few key players. But that's not the Panthers. Carolina went 15-1 last year because its stars turned in incredible performances on a week-to-week basis. Today, Norman is gone, but Newton and Kuechly are still on hand, and they're needed. To make a playoff run, Carolina will have to get their best over the last eight games, and hope that's good enough to paper over the team's other problems. In a NFC where no one seems to want to take charge, that still seems possible.
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