The Carolina Panthers have high hopes for the 2012 NFL season, including a Super Bowl prediction by All-Pro center Ryan Kalil, but they cannot simply play for a wild card berth if they expect to reach the playoffs in the loaded National Football Conference.
Instead, the Carolina Panthers will have to win the NFC South in 2012 to ensure their place in the NFL's postseason tournament.
In order to win the NFC South, Carolina will have to beat out the defending division champion New Orleans Saints, the 2010 division winner Atlanta Falcons and an improved Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad that finished 10-6 two seasons ago and started out with a 4-2 record before losing their final 10 games in 2011.
Simply having a winning season in 2012 will be a step in the right direction for a Panthers team that won just two games in 2010.
However, much like the Detroit Lions' resurrection into the playoffs last year after going winless in 2009, Carolina is a young and talented team with high expectations, led by a franchise quarterback in the making and coming off of a strong finish the previous season.
A Loaded Conference
There are at least three teams in each NFC division with postseason aspirations, and only six teams will reach the playoffs, including four division winners and a couple of wild cards.
Outside of the bounty-gate scandal in the Big Easy that resulted in the one-year suspension of Saints coach Sean Payton and linebacker Jonathan Vilma and the indefinite suspension of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, there is nothing that indicates any of these teams will falter in 2012.
The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Seahawks also harbor divisional title hopes, while the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys are considered contenders to reach the postseason as well.
So where does that leave the Carolina Panthers, who finished 6-10 in 2011, despite having the fifth-highest scoring offense in the NFL last season?
Somehow, it leaves Carolina with an opportunity to jump into the driver's seat early in the season, by playing the Buccaneers, the Saints and the Falcons in three of their first four regular season games.
The Josh-Freeman-led Bucs re-hauled their entire coaching staff in the offseason, after suffering a pair of embarrassing defeats to the Panthers in the midst of their epic 10-game collapse, and they seem a far cry from the team that nearly made the 2010 NFL playoffs.
Mike Smith's Falcons were a cut above the Panthers in 2011, but they suffered demoralizing losses to the Packers and the Giants in the playoffs each of the past two seasons, and they seem to lack the toughness required to become an elite NFL team.
Drew Brees' Saints are clearly the most talented offensive team in the division, but offseason distractions and the loss of their sideline leaders on both sides of the ball could result in a rough start for the 2009 Super Bowl champions.
If the Panthers can win at least two of their first three divisional games in September, ideally the season opener at Tampa Bay and in Week 2 hosting New Orleans, a 4-1 record in the NFC South heading into their season finale at the Superdome is not out of reach.
Why the Panthers Can Win the South
This may sound cliche, but the Carolina Panthers can win the NFC South in 2012, because they are the hungriest team in the division.
Carolina's second-year quarterback, Cam Newton, is a winner and he, along with head coach Ron Rivera, has lit a fire that has spread throughout the organization and created a pervasive winning atmosphere that was previously non-existent in the franchise's 17-year history.
The Panthers can win the division, because they are stronger and healthier on defense.
The return of linebacker Jon Beason (Achilles) and defensive tackle Ron Edwards (triceps), along with the offseason additions of rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly, rookie cornerback Josh Norman and Ed Reed's former backup in Baltimore safety Haruki Nakamura, make Carolina a top-20 defense or better.
The Panthers can win the division, because they are much better on special teams.
Despite giving up a 90-yard touchdown return on the Panthers' first preseason kickoff against the Houston Texans, the offseason additions of Mike Tolbert, Haruki Nakamura, Kenny Onatolu and rookie punt returner extraordinaire, Joe Adams, will restore Carolina's special teams units to respectability.
The Panthers can win the division, because they are entering their second season in diabolical offensive mastermind Rob "Chud" Chudzinski's offense.
Opposing NFL defenses are about to face one of the most balanced, complex and nuanced offenses the league has seen since Minnesota Vikings' record-setting offense Brian Billick's 1998 Minnesota Vikings unit outscored opponents by more than 16 points per game.
The Panthers can with the division, because today is August 17, 2012, and every team in the NFC South is still tied for first.
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the NFL and the Carolina Panthers for Bleacher Report since 2008.
Be sure to check in for Grappone's live blog coverage of the Carolina Panthers v. Miami Dolphins beginning at 8:00 PM (EST) on Friday, August 17, 2012.
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