It has been nine months since the Carolina Panthers played a game that matters, but that changes Sunday at Jacksonville.
The Panthers are only favored by a field goal against a team that went 3-13 a year ago, which tells you something about how Carolina is perceived nationally.
I think the Panthers will win this one, but it’s no sure thing. With less than a week to go before kickoff – and while Panthers fans debate yet again how much those dirty rotten New England Patriots cheated in a Super Bowl played more than a decade ago – here are the three factors most concerning for Carolina on Sunday.
1. The pass rush is inconsistent.
What, you thought I was going to talk about the wide receivers first? That’s coming. But in his Monday news conference, Panthers coach Ron Rivera admitted that the coaches are “holding our breath” to see what sort of pass rush the team can generate against Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles and throughout the season.
Bortles had a nice August, not throwing an interception in the preseason and completing 65 percent of his passes. But Bortles is only entering his second year; he plays for a team that is offensively challenged, and he rarely sees linebackers as good as Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
But while the Panthers’ secondary certainly looks better right now than it did a year ago, the pass rush is problematic. Kony Ealy has taken over the spot at defensive right end and will be a huge key. Left defensive end Charles Johnson, the Panthers’ best rusher in 2014, did not play a single snap of the exhibitions because of calf and neck injuries.
Defensive end Charles Johnson, who has led the Panthers in sacks for four of the past five seasons, did not play a single snap during the preseason due to injury but is expected to start Sunday.
Johnson has always been a gamer and has produced at least 8.5 sacks per season for each of the past five years. But you have to wonder how much football is left in the body of the nine-year veteran. And Star Lotulelei’s surgically repaired right foot means the Panthers’ best interior defensive lineman may not play at all Sunday.
So where do the sacks come from? That’s the question. Even an average quarterback such as Bortles, if allowed to get comfortable, is good enough to beat the Panthers. The rush has got to be there.
2. Philly Brown is a starter?!
This is hard for me to believe, given Brown’s drop-filled preseason, but it speaks volumes as to where the Panthers’ wide receivers are as a group after Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending injury. I think Devin Funchess will replace the jittery Brown as a starter fairly soon, but he hasn’t stayed healthy enough to get on the field and prove himself.
So Cam Newton’s Week 1 starting wideouts are two small, speedy receivers. Ted Ginn Jr. is the other starter, the one who hasn’t been dropping passes and going through a name identity crisis.
I imagine tight end Greg Olsen will be targeted at least 10 times in the first game. Given Newton’s penchant for occasionally throwing high, that’s probably a good thing. As I have written a number of times, the question of whether Carolina can score enough to win will be the overall theme of 2015.
3. The O-line has to hold up.
An offensive line is not a sexy thing to write about, but this team has to be able to run the ball and protect Newton to win. I think they have the running backs to do just that – we know how good Jonathan Stewart was at the end of last season, and Cameron Artis-Payne is ready to make an immediate impact.
But what about the line? Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil has been nursing a sprained knee, although he sounds pretty confident he will play Sunday. Michael Oher was solid during the exhibition season protecting Newton’s blind side and now will have to prove he can do it for 25 to 30 throws per game.
This line has good versatility. I don’t know whether it has great road-grader capability. So we will find out Sunday, for the first time in nine months, what the Panthers really have. I think I speak for all of us when I say: It’s about time.