As you all are aware by now, Carolina Panthers football returns to your homes at 8:30 tonight (WCNC Charlotte). The matchup is a rematch of February's Super Bowl 51, which saw Peyton Manning and the Broncos walk away with the Lombardi Trophy.
Key matchup: Von Miller Vs. Mike Remmers. Even though Remmers had a solid season at right tackle for the Panthers a year ago, he was totally exposed by Von Miller on the biggest stage. Remmers will look to regain his reputation tonight.
Players to watch: Cam Newton - While this may seem like a boring choice, Newton has something to prove after a disappointing end to last year's season. While there are some who don't think Newton can keep pace with last season's number, many think he'll be in the MVP conversation each year in the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see how Newton plays against the defense that caused the entire Panthers' offense so much trouble seven months ago.
James Bradberry - Most view the secondary as Carolina's only glaring weakness. While Tre Boston should be an upgrade over Roman Harper at safety, Bradberry will have bigger shoes to fill at cornerback. Now that Josh Norman plays for Washington, it is Bradberry's time to show the world his skills.
Kawaan Short - After a long offseason of contract negotiations, Short will get to put all that behind him and get after the quarterback again tonight. Given he's due for a pay day (from the Panthers or otherwise), he should be motivated to put up big numbers again this year.
Game prediction: It's hard for me to see the defending NFC Champions losing to a team with a quarterback with no experience, regardless of how good their defense might be. If the Panthers get back to their old mentality, which wasn't present in the Super Bowl, they should win by at least 10 points. Final Score: Panthers 27, Broncos: 19.
Editor-in-chief of The Charlotte Sports Blog
Who: Houston Texans (0-1) at Carolina Panthers (1-0)
What: NFL Football (Regular Season Week #2)
When: Sunday, September 20th, 2015 @ 1:00PM
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
The Panthers will look to build off of a Week 1 victory as the Houston Texans and JJ Watt come to Charlotte for an inter-conference battle.
The biggest headline entering into Sunday’s game is the absence of Luke Kuechly, who was not cleared to play after suffering a concussion last week in Jacksonville. A.J. Klein will make his nine career start, as he fills in at middle linebacker position in place of Kuechly. Klein had five tackles in the second half of last week’s 20-9 victory.
Meanwhile, the Texans will enter Sunday’s contest after a disappointing 27-20 home loss against Kansas City, when a firing Chiefs’ offense and poor quarterback play plagued Houston into defeat. Ryan Mallett will make his third career start Sunday in place of Brian Hoyer, who had two turnovers before being pulled last week with 6:10 left in the game.
Keys to the game:
Jonathon Hoppe: JJ Watt. It's that simple. It should interesting to see how the Panthers handle a very physical front of the Texans. If right-tackle Mike Remmers continues his impressive play, Watt and the Texans won't cause the Panthers too much trouble.
Mark Calcagno: The wide receivers. If Funchess, Brown, and Ginn can avoid drops, the Panthers will be able to move the ball successfully against the Texans’ defense.
JH: Last week, the Texans were not very impressive against the Chiefs. With that said, the Panthers had some issues of their own. However, look for Newton and the Panthers to correct those mistakes and collect an easy win Sunday afternoon. Final score: Panthers 27, Texans 14.
MC: Watching the Texans struggle to defend Travis Kelce last week (106 receiving yards, two TDs), I can’t help but seeing Greg Olsen having a monster afternoon Sunday, despite a quite Week 1. Thus, look for him and the Panthers’ defense to have an excellent home opener. Final score: Carolina 24, Houston 17.
Passing: Cam Newton* (198 yards, 2 TDs) Vs. Russell Wilson (3,475 yards, 20 TDs)
Rushing: Jonathan Stewart* (123 yards, 1 TD) Vs. Marshawn Lynch (1,306 yards, 13 TDs)
Receiving: Fozzy Whitaker* (39 yards, 1 TD) Vs. Doug Baldwin (825 yards, 3 TDs)
*Denotes playoff stats
Who: Arizona Cardinals (11-5) at Carolina Panthers (7-8-1)
What: NFL Playoffs--Wild Card Round
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
When: Saturday, January 3rd at 4:35 PM
Line: CAR -6.5
Passing: Cam Newton (3,127 yards, 18 TDs) Vs Ryan Lindley (562 yards, 2 TDs)
Rushing: Jonathan Stewart (809 yards, 3 TDs) Vs Stepfan Taylor (208 yards, 1 TDs)
Receiving: Kelvin Benjamin (1,008 yards, 9 TDs) Vs Michael Floyd (841 yards, 6 TDs)
Playoffs? Playoffs? Are you talking about the playoffs? You kiddin’ me? Yep, seven wins, eight losses, and a tie, but we are talking about the Panthers in the playoffs. And to make it even sweeter, it’s a home postseason game against an injury-depleted and slouching Arizona Cardinals team.
Indeed, the Cardinals and Panthers come into this one by way of vastly different seasons. Arizona, who started the year off by winning nine of their first ten games, has been inconsistent and unimpressive recently, losing their last two contests. While much of that has been due to a plethora of injuries to offensive skill players such as Carson Palmer, Andre Ellington, and Drew Stanton, Arizona's "stellar" defense also hasn't been living up to their reputation as of late, giving up 35 points to Seattle and another 20 to San Francisco in consecutive weeks to end the season. Meanwhile, as you probably know, the Panthers are currently one of the hottest teams in the NFL by way of a four-game winning streak. Carolina has gone from 3-8-1 to 7-8-1 and NFC South Champions with wins over New Orleans, Tampa, Cleveland, and Atlanta since Week 13.
It was announced Friday that Ryan Lindley will be Arizona's starter for tonight's game. Lindley, who first started on Week 16 against Seattle after an injury to then-starter Drew Stanton, threw for 306 yards, two touchdowns, and three picks in last Sunday's loss to the 49ers.
Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor have carried the rushing load for the Cards since Ellington's injury and are expected to be platoon Saturday's duties out of the back field tonight in Charlotte.
The Last Time Out
Carolina was simply dominant in their 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons Dome last Sunday, earning their second NFC South crown in as many years. The story of the game was really the Panthers’ dominant defense that scored two touchdowns via pick sixes by Roman Harper and Tre Boston. Meanwhile, Carolina’s offense found no trouble moving the ball against a tired Atlanta D, picking up 306 total yards and 2 TDs.
I think everything's there for the Panthers to dominate this matchup. They're healthy, loose, and confident and playing a team with limited talent on the offensive side of the ball. A rocking Bank of America Stadium won't hurt either. Carolina wins 27-13.
What I Liked
Rewriting The History Books
In addition to becoming the first repeat champions in the NFC South's 13-year history, the Panthers also shed the dubious distinction of being the only NFL team without any back-to-back playoff appearances. Several players also reached milestones, including Greg Olsen, who capped off his first career 1,000 yard season, and Cam Newton, who joined Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham as the only quarterbacks with four or more 500 rushing yard seasons. Oh, and let's not forget about Kelvin Benjamin, who became the first Panthers' rookie ever to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards.
Young Guys Making An Impact
We knew the Panthers were undergoing a sort of youth movement a while ago (they broke a franchise record by starting six rookies in Week 15 against Tampa Bay, then broke it again by starting seven last week against Cleveland), but no one was quite sure how it would turn out until this game. That was when the Panthers' young guys stepped up and erased most of the doubt surrounding them. Three of the rookies in the secondary came up big, as safety Tre Boston had an 84-yard pick six, CB Bene Benwikere had seven tackles (just one short of a career high), and undrafted LB Adarius Glanton forced a fumble that was recovered and run back 33 yards by Thomas Davis to set up a Cam Newton touchdown run. On the line, second-year DT Star Lotulelei had a team high two sacks and three TFLs, and rookie DE Kony Ealy also recorded a sack. On offense, Philly Brown showed once again just how versatile he is, gaining 41 yards on a pair of end arounds as well as catching a 28-yard pass. Also, Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell helped anchor an offensive line that allowed just one sack and three TFLs.
What I Didn't Like
Benjamin's Bad Day
Although Kelvin Benjamin managed to break 1,000 yards on the season, he did it with his only catch for just nine yards. Two of his other four targets were dropped, including one that was almost perfectly on target and would've been good for at least 40 yards. Fortunately, the Panthers were able to make up the yardage with a Philly Brown run the next play, but drops like those are worryingly uncharachteristic of the talented young receiver. However, based on the performances he's been putting up all season, I'm willing to give Kelvin Benjamin the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up to just a bad day at the office.
The Tipping Point
Joe Webb's Touchdown-Saving Tackle On Devin Hester's 66-Yard Return
There were four seconds left in the first quarter and the Panthers had just gone up 10-0. Graham Gano kicked off into the end zone, but not out of it, and the NFL's best kick returner took advantage. Devin Hester got to about the 20, pulled a nice spin move, and then he was off. He took the ball all the way back to the Panthers 38 yard line before he was shoved out of bounds in a desperation lunge by third string QB Joe Webb. If Webb had missed the tackle, it would've been a 10-7 ball game. Instead, the defense held the line (almost literally, as the Falcons were able to take it down to the three) and the Falcons' burst of momentum fizzled out as they settled for a field goal.
TCSB Game MVP
Not only did these guys singlehandedly outscore the Falcons with two pick sixes, Josh Norman also held two time Pro Bowler Julio Jones to just four catches for 58 yards. With their recievers shut down, the Falcons had to turn to the run game, which was nothing without Steven Jackson (Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman combined for a grand total of 57 yards). By rendering the Falcons helpless, the secondary took a huge amount of pressure off the rest of the team, and it showed. With this stellar performance in the books, Panthers fans should be able to look forward to next week knowing that Larry Fitzgerald likely won't be doing what he did in 2009, when he roasted the defense for 166 yards and a touchdown.
Final Score: Panthers 34, Falcons 3
The Playoff Opponent
Be sure to check back to thecharlottesportsblog.com tomorrow for post-game analysis by lead Panthers writer Matt Bowling!
Passing: Cam Newton (3013 yards, 17 TDs, 12 INT) Vs Matt Ryan (4434 yards, 28 TDs, 12 INT)
Rushing: Jonathan Stewart (760 yards, 3 TDs, 2 FUM) Vs Steven Jackson (707 yards, 6 TDs, 0 FUM)
Receiving: Kelvin Benjamin (999 yards, 9 TDs) Vs Julio Jones (1535 yards, 6 TDs)
Well, Panthers’ fans, Week 17 is here and Carolina, miraculously, just needs to win to clinch a second NFC South title in as many years despite only eclipsing six victories thus far. The opponent: the “Dirty Birds” from Atlanta, who defeated the Panthers 19-17 back in Charlotte on Week 12. Since that loss, however, the Panthers have undergone an incredible turnaround, winning their past three contests.
As for Atlanta, they come into this matchup having won only two of their last five games, but did the Panthers a favor last Sunday by defeating New Orleans to set up this win-or-go-home finale between the two clubs. Between a deep wide-receiver core consisting the likes of Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Harry Douglas and a dangerous quarterback in Matt Ryan, this Falcons team certainly has the capability to move the ball offensively, especially against a Panthers team in the bottom half of the NFL in total defense.
Despite the home-field advantage that the Falcons will enjoy Sunday, I’m going to go with the Panthers in this one as the Carolina's defense has improved mightily as of late. Panthers win 20-16.
What I Liked
I'd almost forgotten what it was like to have a strong running game until I watched DeAngelo Williams put up 41 yards on 10 carries, his highest rushing total since the Panthers' Week 1 win at Tampa Bay. If this isn't just a fluke, and Williams is back to his pre-injuries form, the Panthers will be able to give him more of the load offensively and not have to rely as much on an already overloaded Cam Newton. That's a good thing.
Yes, they did almost get Cam Newton killed on the very first play of the team's first possession when Tyson Jackson was able to breeze through untouched and issue a helmet-to-helmet hit so brutal that Cam was later evaluated for a possible concussion. But after giving up nine sacks last week against the Eagles, a feat Philadelphia hadn't accomplished since 2008, watching the offensive line surrender just two sacks and no other hits on the quarterback felt nothing short of miraculous. If these guys can keep it together through the final five games, then a vast number of this team's problems immdiately go away, and the Panthers have a great shot at winning this year's ugliest division.
What I Didn't Like
Questionable Play Calling
Earlier in the season, many of the Panthers' failures could've been attributed to the men wearing the helmets. However, it seems we've reached the point where at least part of this team's problem lies with the men wearing the headsets. Throughout this game, there were many times when the plays that were being called just didn't seem like the right choice under the circumstances. Earlier in the game, Cam couldn't seem to connect with a receiver, yet the Panthers kept calling pass plays. Then, late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line and Cam on a hot streak, the Panthers opted to call three consecutive run plays from the Falcons' 32-yard line. This, of course, would result in Graham Gano's missed field goal which debatably cost the team the game. The big question here, though, is not why Gano missed a kick within his normal range, but why Riverboat Ron opted to merely poke at the Falcons when he could have delivered the killing blow. I understand the desire to force Atlanta to burn their last timeouts, but the clock runs for completions, too, and there's absolutely no reason not to at least try to keep the chains moving against the NFL's worst pass defense. Let's hope Ron Rivera and his staff take this bye week as an opportunity to do a bit of self-examination and figure out how they can avoid a repeat of this debacle.
The Tipping Point
Graham Gano's Missed Field Goal
It was a 46-yarder, normally well within the range of a man who's put it through from 70 yards out on the practice field. But this time, Graham Gano put it wide left, and took the air out of a resurgent Panthers offense. He would get another chance from 63 yards out as time expired, but it would be blocked by rookie DE Ra'Shede Hageman, and the Panthers would fall to 3-7-1.
TCSB Game MVP
The Cincinnati Bengals
Wait, what? Yeah, that's right, this week's Game MVP is the Cincinnati Bengals, who by beating the Saints 27-10 kept the race for the NFC South a tight one. When they come off their bye week on November 30th against the Minnesota Vikings, a team with troubles of its own, the Panthers will be at most two games out of the division lead (assuming the Saints don't lose to the Ravens, who are coming off a bye week of their own, and the Falcons don't lose to the Browns, with a newly-reinstated Josh Gordon back in their arsenal). From there, they'll have another game against each of their divisional opponents and the Browns. If the Panthers take full advantage of this bye week to rest the guys who need it, fix what needs fixing, and prepare for the final stretch of the 2014 season, there's nothing stopping them from at least contending to become the first ever repeat champions of the NFL's wildest division.
It has been a crazy ride for Panthers fans this season. From starting 2-0 with a repeat of playoff dreams in sight, to a tie against the Bengals, and now we sit 3-5-1 heading to Philadelphia to face the 6-2 Eagles.
The Eagles are predicted to be the favorite on Monday night, even with back-up quarterback Mark Sanchez getting the start. The way the season has gone for the Panthers, I can see why the Eagles are such heavy favorites. The Eagles run one of the fastest offenses in the NFL; last year this offense would not have been a problem, but this year the Panthers' defense is not near what it was last year.
However, the Eagles' passing games has been inconsistent all year. This will more than likely remain the same with Mark Sanchez. Since naming Josh Norman as a starter, the Panthers pass defense, like their running defense, has improved. The Eagles have a fast paced offense, something that the Panthers defense has struggled to contain.
While the Panthers defense has improved over the last two games, they still sit 26th in rushing defense with LeSean McCoy starting to ramp up his carries. The injury to Foles has led to Chip Kelly calling a lot more running plays. McCoy will prove to be one of the Panthers fiercest challenges this year, but let’s hope Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei, and company can keep the momentum they have gained the past two games going.
The good news is the Panthers are expected to get both Byron Bell and Amini Silotolu back for this game. Do not expect the Panthers line to be good considering it has not all year. It is better than starting three undrafted free agents though.
The Eagles defense is much like the Panthers--near the bottom of the league. Cam Newton has the opportunity to bounce back to his pro-bowl caliber play he had the first half of the season.
I expect for both teams to score over 20 points and the Panthers to play their best nationally televised game of the season. Unfortunately I think that the Eagles fast paced offence will be too much for the Panthers to contain and the losing woes to continue. I of course hope more than anything that I am wrong, but no matter what we must keep our heads up and hope for the best. Teams have made bigger turn-around’s to end up in the playoffs. The dream of playing in the post season is far from dead, especially with New Orleans continuing to struggle.
Prediction: Eagles 28 Panthers 24