As the 11–5 Carolina Panthers embark on their playoff campaign this coming Sunday, much about the team will look familiar from previous postseason runs. The offense still functions almost entirely on the boom-or-bust proposition of Cam Newton’s bulldozer scrambling and scattershot arm, and the defense remains a disciplined and formidable unit with mainstay linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis thriving in a Swiss Army Knife capacity while ends Mario Addison and Julius Peppers chase down and torment quarterbacks.
On its face, there is not a great deal of difference between this version of the Panthers and the 2015 squad that went 15–1 and rampaged its way through the NFC and into the Super Bowl.
Behind the scenes, however, the season has been far more tumultuous. In December, following an exhaustive and stomach-churningly repugnant exposé by Sports Illustrated
, the franchise’s eighty-one-year-old owner Jerry Richardson was forced to announce his intention to sell the team at the conclusion of the league year. The article, which detailed a long-standing pattern of sexual harassment towards female employees by Richardson, as well his use of a racial epithet in addressing an African-American scout, was enough to mortify the NFL into prompt action. For a league in which Luciferian figures like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder are allowed to go about their business unmolested, this is really saying something. Many locals have long been aware of Richardson’s creepy tendencies, deep connection to right-wing politics, and suspicious racial attitudes, but the SI
story was a national embarrassment for a typically under-the-radar organization.
To his considerable credit, longtime head coach Ron Rivera was largely able to navigate through the controversy, leading the team to three victories in their final four games before dropping a meaningless Week 17 contest to Atlanta. Now in his seventh season with the Panthers, Rivera has proven to be a dependable leader whose three division titles and four playoff appearances would be the envy of many of his peers.
For all of his considerable success, it’s an enigma of Rivera’s teams that they always seem unfinished in the same predictable ways. Frequently undernourished at the offensive skill positions, the Panthers have typically placed an undue burden on Newton’s broad shoulders, never more so than this year, when the quarterback again led the team in rushing with 754 yards, in addition to passing for 3,300 more. The Panthers added a dynamic weapon in rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, but then bafflingly subtracted Newton’s best wide receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, via a mid-season trade with Buffalo. At that point, it became clear that once again, for all intents and purposes, the Panther’s quarterback was
The problem with this approach is that while Newton is a great player, he’s also a flawed one. On a given day, when his accuracy as a thrower is sufficient to make defenses pay for planning against his running ability, he is arguably the most unstoppable offensive force in the league. Few players are capable of discouraging defenses like Newton, who is just as happy trucking over a safety, outrunning a cornerback in the open field, or lofting a deep ball to a wide-open tight end after forcing teams to play eight in the box. Unfortunately, there are days every season in which Newton couldn’t hit a milk truck with a beach ball, and no one ever seems to know when those days are coming. As the Panthers prepare to visit their division rivals in New Orleans this weekend, Newton’s ability to succeed in the passing game will be the contest’s crucial factor.
The first-round matchup with the Saints is not fortuitous. The Panthers’ 2017 campaign features an impressive victory over NFC favorites Minnesota, as well as a narrow loss to the top-seeded Eagles, and the team would bring something more than a puncher’s chance to either rematch. The Saints, however, have handled the Panthers twice already this year, and their renovated defense seems custom made to give Newton fits.
In September, New Orleans tortured the Panthers offense, holding Newton to 167 passing yards and forcing three interceptions in a blowout. When the teams met again in December, in what was ostensibly a game to decide the NFC South championship, the results were not much better, with Newton held under two hundred yards passing again and frequently looking perplexed. Led by outstanding rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and a nasty pass rush featuring Cameron Jordan, this version of the Saints has the capacity to make Newton one dimensional and force him to beat them with his arm.
That’s not good news.
On the other side of the ball, things are equally concerning. More than a decade into his career as Saints head coach, Sean Payton shockingly reimagined his pass-happy attack in 2017, turning his offense into a run-first juggernaut behind the dependable Mark Ingram and the spectacular rookie Alvin Kamara. With the pressure off the still-great Drew Brees to throw fifty times a game, the results have been tremendous. While still possessing a lethal passing game, the new-look Saints can take the air out of the ball just as easily, dominating time of possession and wearing teams out. In their two losses to New Orleans, the Panthers yielded thirty-four and thirty points, their two highest totals of the season. Barring an injury to Brees, there is nothing to suggest the Saints won’t thrive again.
Games between division rivals are notoriously difficult to forecast. They are ways to imagine the Panthers winning. It’s possible that,
having gotten two long looks at New Orleans earlier this season, Rivera will have figured out a few wrinkles that could slow down the Saints’ running game. Coupled with extensive pressure on Brees from the Panthers front four, it’s possible they could alter the dynamic and keep the game low scoring into the fourth quarter. On a good day, Newton is the best player on any field he steps on, and it’s possible he will excel in the passing game and make New Orleans pay for playing the run. It’s also possible Luke Kuechly could do Luke Kuechly things and pick off a couple of passes, and maybe take one to the house.
Maybe they play their best game of the year and win in the last seconds on a Graham Gano walk off.
I don’t see this happening. The battle-tested Brees playing at home is a bad matchup for Carolina, arguably the worst possible one for them in the entire NFC tournament. I look for an overmatched Newton to keep it close for a half,
before New Orleans asserts itself and dominates the closing sessions for a convincing victory.
Having said that, should the Panthers somehow steal one here, they immediately become a team no opponent will want to see going forward.
Prediction: New Orleans 35, Carolina 20