Panthers vs Buccaneers: Carolina's Rough Start May Lead to an 0-8 Record

Knox Bardeen@knoxbardeenNFC South Lead WriterSeptember 10, 2012

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 9:  Defensive end Michael Bennett #71 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers forces quarterback Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers to fumble at Raymond James Stadium September 9, 2012 in Tampa, Florida.  Tampa won 16 - 10. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The worst thing about Sunday for the Carolina Panthers wasn’t the six-point loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on the road.

When Carolina failed to beat the Buccaneers—a team that lost 10 games in a row to finish last season—it failed to win the easiest of its first five games of the year.

The worst thing about Sunday was the fact that Carolina might now not get a win until after its bye week on October 14.

The Panthers host the New Orleans Saints, the New York Giants, travel to Atlanta and finish a brutal stretch of games with the Seattle Seahawks at home.

The game against Tampa Bay was the only matchup against a squad with double-digit losses last season until Week 9. The Buccaneers and the Seahawks are the only two teams in Carolina’s first five games that didn’t make the playoffs last year.

Prior to the season, I circled Carolina’s first five games and said the Panthers couldn’t get through this stretch unscathed. They had to come out of it with two or maybe three wins if they were to have a chance at the playoffs.

It’s now going to be a real struggle for the Panthers to find their first win before they get a week off on the second Sunday of October.

Heck, with the Dallas Cowboys coming to town in Week 7 and Carolina traveling to meet the Chicago Bears in Week 8, the Panthers’ first real opportunity for a win might be Week 9 against the Washington Redskins.

However, even that theory might be considered weak after rookie Robert Griffin III led the Redskins past the Saints on Sunday after throwing for 320 yards and two touchdowns.

This early stretch of games for Carolina was to be a measuring stick. It was a test to see if all the optimism for a six-win team was just, or if Ryan Kalil’s full-page Super Bowl guarantee in the Charlotte Observer was nothing but preseason hot air.

Anything can happen over the next four weeks, but from where I sit after Week 1, Carolina doesn’t stand a chance of making the playoffs. Furthermore, the Panthers may struggle to make it back to meet their six-win mark from 2011.

Sure, Cam Newton threw for 300 yards against the Buccaneers, but interceptions—just like last year—truly hurt and happened at the most inopportune moments.

DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert combined for one yard on seven carries, and had it not been for Newton and wide receiver Kealoha Pilares, the Panthers would not have reached double digits in rushing yards.

According to the Charlotte Observer, Sunday’s 13 yards on 10 carries tied a franchise low for rushing yards.

Carolina’s offensive line struggled, allowing Newton to be sacked three times and flailing about in the run game.

Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, the Panthers’ new linebacker corps looked rather pedestrian, particularly rookie first-round pick Luke Kuechly.

Every aspect of Carolina’s game on Sunday can be fixed. Newton should bounce back and the Panthers’ run game—arguably its strongest feature—won’t always look inept, especially with the return of Jonathan Stewart.

The offensive line won’t always be porous, and the defense—with a linebacker crew that's the envy of the NFC—won’t always be a non-factor.

Everything that went wrong for the Panthers on Sunday can definitely be fixed. It’s all coachable. What’s not coachable and what can’t be fixed with a few film-room tweaks and scheme alterations is the rest of Carolina’s early schedule.

Carolina had better find a way to pull off a major upset or two before their bye week. Otherwise, the Panthers will replace the Buccaneers as the NFC South’s door mat.