The Panthers will go 10-6 if ...
• New offensive coordinator Mike Shula gets creative and doesn't run the ball off-tackle on second-and-1 at midfield, like he did in the preseason.
• The offensive line protects Cam Newton and keeps the franchise quarterback healthy. Getting Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil back should help, but this did not look like an overpowering line in the preseason.
• Newton takes the next step in his development and makes more plays with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. The Panthers lost seven games last season by a touchdown or less.
• Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Dwan Edwards occupy blockers and allow Luke Kuechly to run free sideline to sideline. Kuechly could be the league's preeminent middle linebacker if the guys up front keep him clean.
• The defense creates takeaways. The Panthers had 10 interceptions in the preseason, and must continue to force the issue. An opportunistic defense can create huge momentum swings that can change games, if not entire seasons.
The Panthers will go 6-10 if ...
• They get out of the gates slowly again. The Panthers have been buried under 2-8 starts the past two years. A similar start will bring early questions about Ron Rivera's future and other distractions this team doesn't need.
• Newton takes a beating in the pocket and loses any significant time to injury. Derek Anderson is a capable backup, but the Panthers' only shot at the playoffs is with No. 1 behind center.
• The line fails to generate much push on running plays, resulting in a lot of third-and-long situations where the defense can come after Newton. (See above.)
• Running back Jonathan Stewart fails to come back healthy in Week 7 when he's eligible to come off the PUP list, and DeAngelo Williams wears down under the extra carries.
• The holes in the secondary are exposed by Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Matt Ryan -- not to mention Russell Wilson, Eli Manning, Sam Bradford, Colin Kaepernick and Tom Brady. The Panthers have the league's toughest schedule, and face some of its best quarterbacks.
The Panthers will go 10-6 if:
• They’re 2-1 entering the bye week. A perfect 3-0 would be optimal, but splitting with two NFC contenders and winning at Buffalo isn’t a bad start to the year.
• Offensive coordinator Mike Shula isn’t too bland. The Panthers need a stronger offense than what we’ve seen this preseason but not as cute as Rob Chudzinski got at times.
• Cam Newton raises his completion percentage by 5 points. A 57.7 percentage won’t win enough games to get this team to the postseason.
• The secondary can continue its great preseason that saw it grab 10 interceptions and take that into the regular season.
The Panthers will go 6-10 if:
• Armanti Edwards isn’t the receiver he was in the preseason. Edwards had his strongest camp but Carolina doesn’t have the horses at the position to slack off.
• Ron Rivera doesn’t take risks. Any coach or player can easier stomach losing a game playing to win rather than trying not to lose.
• Jordan Gross regresses in what could be his final year. The Panthers have no depth at left tackle to protect Newton’s blind side.
• Greg Hardy can’t get to the quarterback. That’d be contrary to everything we’ve seen this preseason, but Hardy must make his mark in this contract year.