After starting the 2016 season with a 1-5 record, the Panthers have rebounded after the bye week, beating the Cardinals and the Rams in consecutive weeks to improve Carolina’s record to 3-5. The Panthers were Super Bowl favorites heading into the 2016 season, and now that things are looking up, is it too late for Carolina to turn it around and make the playoffs?
Head coach Ron Rivera doesn’t think so, and he’s been saying it since the Panthers’ bye week.
“We’ve got an opportunity to do something that was done last year,” Rivera said after Carolina’s only practice during their week off. “A team started 1-5 and came back and put themselves in position.”
The Chiefs did start 1-5 in 2015 and then won 10 straight to finish with an 11-5 record, locking up a wild card playoff bid. If the Panthers manage to pull off a similar feat, they’ll be just the second team since 1990 to do so. It’s a tall order.
Carolina hasn’t beaten any team with a winning record
The Panthers’ first win of the season came against the Blaine Gabbert-led San Francisco 49ers, a team that currently has the second-worst record in the NFL at 1-7.
Carolina’s other wins came against the 3-4-1 Arizona Cardinals, another team that has taken a step back after a NFC Championship appearance against the Panthers last season, and the 3-4 Los Angeles Rams. Rams fans chanted for Jared Goff and even Tim Tebow to take over for Case Keenum during the Panthers’ 13-10 victory on Sunday.
The Panthers have already suffered losses to each division foe, falling to the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers so far this season. The Panthers are tied for last in the NFC South with the Bucs, and while the Buccaneers are 3-5 and the Saints are 4-4, they clearly are capable of beating the Panthers this season. The 6-3 Falcons, in a matchup that will be played on Christmas Eve, present the toughest challenge for the Panthers.
The Panthers can’t afford any more losses
But divisional challenges aside, the Panthers would essentially have to win out, or close to it, to lock up a playoff spot. Carolina will have to go through the Oakland Raiders, a team that’s tied for the most wins in the NFL right now at 7-2, and the 5-2-1 Seattle Seahawks to do so. Another team with a winning record at 5-4, Washington, looms ahead for the Panthers. Even the San Diego Chargers, at 4-5, seem to have hit their stride of late and will be a difficult test for the Panthers.
And, of course, the team the Panthers face next is the Kansas City Chiefs, the team that just one season ago overcame a 1-5 start to make the playoffs. The Chiefs have quietly earned a 6-2 record, and Alex Smith should return this week from a concussion, which makes things a little more difficult for the Panthers.
This just isn’t last year’s Panthers team
Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t playing at the MVP level he sustained throughout last season. Newton threw just 10 interceptions over the course of all of last season, and he’s already thrown six in 2016. Newton has already taken 21 sacks this season, after being sacked only three times last year.
A defense that was dominant last season is now statistically average at best. The Panthers rank 23rd in points allowed with 25.8, compared to last year’s average of 19.2 points per game, which was good for sixth in the league.
Carolina’s defense got after quarterbacks last season, and they’ve not been as adept with that in 2016, until the last two weeks. One-third of the Panthers’ 24 sacks this season came against the Cardinals in Week 8, and they added five more in Week 9 against the Rams in Los Angeles. That’s the biggest difference for this team over the past two weeks.
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While Rivera isn’t wrong about the fact that the Panthers could theoretically turn things around and make it to the playoffs, it’s a long road ahead for Carolina.
The defense seems to be hitting its stride, sacking Case Keenum four times and picking him off once. Thomas Davis appears to be back to form, racking up 11 tackles, a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble last Sunday against the Rams. The offense wasn’t stellar, but did enough to get the win.
More importantly, the Panthers managed to string together two consecutive wins for the first time this season, giving the team a lot of confidence going into the stretch. Still, considering history and the near impossibility of winning out, it may be too late for the Panthers to lock up a playoff spot this season after the 1-5 start.