Let’s face it: The odds are against the Panthers returning to the Super Bowl this season. The big game’s winner rarely gets back a second year in a row, and it’s even tougher for the game’s loser to return. Unless maybe you’re the early-1990s Buffalo Bills. In fact, that was the last time a Super Bowl loser returned to the pinnacle of pro football the following year.
I often make it clear that I’m a terrible game prognosticator, no matter how much I know about players, matchups, stats, history and sports in general, but here’s what I’m feeling for the Panthers this season.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS (in order of importance)
1. How does Cam Newton follow his MVP season? Not likely he can exceed, or even match, his production from a year ago.
2. Does anyone emerge as a shutdown cornerback? Two rookies and the young Bene Benwikere will try, but I don’t see a star coming. For what it’s worth, I didn’t see Josh Norman stepping up the way he did early last year either.
3. Aside from Newton, the wide receiving corps and tight end Greg Olsen, how does the offense perform? Jonathan Stewart needs help at running back if he’s going to stay fresh and healthy. And the offensive line must be solid like 2015 if the Panthers are going to play deep into January.
1. Kelvin Benjamin will make the passing game better. But a clear No. 2 receiver must stand up if the offense will keep defenses on their toes.
2. The defensive front seven will be more than solid. Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short and Kony Ealy will continue to strengthen as a still-youthful core. And Thomas Davis almost seems ageless.
3. Close games will again abound. Most people remember blowouts like the Arizona Cardinals massacre in the NFC Championship game. But the reality is that the past several seasons have most often produced games decided by just a few points. What will Riverboat Ron’s record be?
THREE GAMES TO WATCH
1. Denver, Sept. 8 – A Super Bowl rematch with a different feel minus Peyton Manning. We’ll get an early indication of what we’ll see from both teams this season.
2. Arizona, Oct. 30 – An NFC championship rematch from earlier this year. Will the Cardinals avenge their embarrassment?
3. Seattle, Dec. 4 – Seattle has owned Carolina in recent years, and that only changed in 2015, when the Panthers won in Seattle in the regular season and in the playoffs in Charlotte. Can Carolina make it three wins in a row over the Seahawks?
PREDICTING THE SCHEDULE
1: at Denver, loss on the road to open up the season starts media’s questions about this team
2: San Francisco, win as Panthers take advantage of a poor 49ers team
3: Minnesota, win as Vikings struggle early without injured QB Teddy Bridgewater
4: at Atlanta, loss as divisional dominance ends on road versus Falcons
5: Tampa Bay, win as Panthers barely hold off rising Buccaneers
6: at New Orleans, loss as Brees-Cooks combo kills Carolina secondary
7: Arizona, loss as Cardinals return misery of NFC title game blowout, drop Panthers to 3-4
8: at Los Angeles, win as the Rams won’t be as bad as expected but won’t have a solid season
9: Kansas City, loss leaves Panthers near .500 at 4-5 heading down the stretch
10: New Orleans, win as Panthers find a way to control Saints passing second time around
11: at Oakland, loss as Panthers fall flat against young, improving Raiders team
12: at Seattle, loss as Seahawks capitalize on two straight west coast stops for Carolina
13: San Diego, win as the Chargers continue to tank
14: at Washington, win offers excitement against former CB Josh Norman
15: Atlanta, win as Panthers avenge earlier loss against Falcons
16: at Tampa Bay, loss leaves Panthers 3-3 in division and 8-8 overall, and a major question mark in the playoff race
That’s right, I’m predicting an 8-8 season for the Panthers in 2016.
The schedule makers did Carolina no favors, starting with a road game at the defending Super Bowl champion. The Broncos seemingly don’t have a solid quarterback, but they still have a top-10 quality defense and a major home field advantage.
The Panthers follow that with a tough assignment against the AFC West teams, additional difficult matchups against the NFC West teams and an improved NFC South division to battle.
I wish I could say I can easily see a way for Carolina to win a fourth straight NFC South title. But I don’t.
If the Panthers are able to do it, they will absolutely have to earn it and play every bit as good or better than their 15-1 season in 2015.