Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Arizona Cardinals (2-2)
Carolina was one of my biggest, if not my biggest sleeper coming into the season. I had them winning 12 games and the NFC South. They finished last season playing very good defense, allowing 21.2 points per game in the final 12 games of last season after they moved Luke Kuechly to the middle linebacker, despite facing top-16 offenses in 8 of those 12 games. They looked poised to continue that into 2013, after adding Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short in the 1st and 2nd round pick of the draft. Offensively, they finished last season scoring 26.0 points per game after Cam Newton put a slow start to his sophomore year behind him. That wasn’t anything ridiculous for them because they scored 25.4 points per game in 2011. In Newton’s 3rd year in the league, he looked poised to have the best year of his career.
In the first 2 games of the season, that looked pretty wrong. The defense was excellent, possibly even better than expected as Star Lotulelei looked like a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. However, their offense was bogged down by poor game plans put together by Offensive Coordinator Mike Shula, who was promoted from quarterbacks coach after Rob Chudzinski left for Cleveland. They also struggled to close games later, something that had plagued them since 2011, Head Coach Ron Rivera’s 1st season with the team. That pushed them to 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Rivera. That’s something that usually evens out in the long run, but it was fair to wonder if the Panthers would ever be able to close out games well under Ron Rivera.
Week 3, however, they destroyed the Giants 38-0 and looked like the team I expected them to be before the season. Yes, the Giants aren’t very good, but beating a team by 38 points, no matter who they are, is an incredibly impressive accomplishment. In that game, their offensive game plan was much better, utilizing more zone runs and shots downfield, which is how you best utilize Cam Newton.
Ron Rivera actually was less conservative with his decision making, as well. They didn’t have to close things out and that could still be a weakness, but I feel a lot better around them going forward and their ability to blow out opponents. They are moving the ball very well, converting 1st and 10 for a subsequent set of downs 79% of the time, while allowing opponents to do so just 72% of the time, a +7% differential they is actually 7th in the NFL.
They also benefitted from having a bye last week. Road favorites, like the Panthers are here, tend to dominate off of a bye. Teams are 44-17 ATS in this situation since 2002. It makes sene. Good teams tend to be very focused off of a bye and this allows them to play up to their talent level. The bye should be very good for the Panthers for that reason. They certainly have the talent to be favored here in Arizona and could easily blow them out. I’m very confident they cover a very short line here.
Carolina Panthers 27 Arizona Cardinals 16
Pick against spread: Carolina -1.5
Confidence: Pick of the Week