Carolina Panthers (0-1) at Buffalo Bills (0-1)
The Panthers were my biggest sleeper coming into the season. In 2012, The Panthers won 6 of their final 9 games to finish 7-9. Among those 6 wins were victories over division winners Washington and Atlanta, as well as a victory in New Orleans against the Saints. Newton was noticeably better in the 2nd half of the season, completing 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.9 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, all while rushing for 394 yards and 4 touchdowns. That was opposed to 57.0% completion, 8.1 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions with 347 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in the 1st half of the season.
Heading into his 3rd season in the league, it’s very possible he’s turned a corner, which would be a very good thing for this team. In their final 8 games, they averaged 26.0 points per game, which would have been tied for 8th in the NFL last season. That’s no fluke, as they ranked 5th in the NFL scoring 25.4 points per game in 2011. At the very least, Newton’s early sophomore slump should be a thing of the past and this should be one of the better offensive teams in the NFL.
The other big turnaround for this team was an improved defense. In their final 12 games of the season, they allowed just 21.2 points per game, which would have been 12th in the NFL over the course of the whole season, even though they played top-16 scoring offenses in 8 of those 12 games. That was opposed to 27.3 points per game allowed in the first 4 games of the season and 26.8 points per game allowed in 2011. The obvious change from week 4 to week 5 was moving eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kueckly to middle linebacker and giving him an every down linebacker role, but you can’t give him all the credit. Young players like Greg Hardy also broke out as the season went on defensively
I’m certainly not giving up on the Panthers after they played tough a Seahawks team that could easily win the Super Bowl. Their defense looked as dominant as I expected, particularly the front 7, even further fortified by the addition of Star Lotulelei. However, their offense didn’t look good, even against a tough Seattle defense. The Panthers admitted their game plan was too conservative and it really was as they frequently eschewed 4th and 1 chances and just 6 of Newton’s 23 attempts went 10+ yards downfield. That’s not even close to how you best utilize Cam Newton.
I’ll give them another chance and I like how the coaching staff admitted their mistake, but if they don’t live up to their talent, it’ll be because of the Ron Rivera/Mike Shula combination.That being said, I’m fairly confident that they’ll be able to beat the Bills by 3 or more. On top of everything I just said, the NFC is just so much better than the AFC this year so I’m frequently going to take the NFC team when there’s a non-conference matchup.
Carolina Panthers 27 Buffalo Bills 13
Pick against spread: Carolina -3
Confidence Level: Medium