Historically, under John Fox the Panthers follow good seasons with 7-9 efforts. That's not the best sign for the 2009 squad.
But when you look at the reason why, there's a little cause for optimism.
In 2004, injuries to Stephen Davis and Steve Smith killed the offense, and the Panthers started out the season 1-7 before adjusting, and going 6-2 in their final eight games.
In 2006, the offensive line was a revolving door, with Travelle Wharton going out early, Justin Hartwig missing the season to a groin in jury, and Mark Wahle finishing out 2006 on Injured Reserve.
Injuries dogged the Panthers all season, as Steve Smith, Jake Delhomme, Dan Morgan, and Mike Rucker also missed several games to injury that year, and after a somewhat promising 4-2 start the Panthers struggled to finish 8-8.
Although it didn't follow a winning season, in 2007 the Panthers lost Jake Delhomme early and went through three other quarterbacks en route to a 7-9 finish.
Which brings us to 2009. The Panthers are coming off a strong 12-4 effort, and look talented enough to contend once again for the division title.
There are depth concerns on both lines though, and at wide receiver. If the Panthers get hurt at the wrong position, or lose too many people even where they have decent depth, then they'll probably be lucky to be 2-6 at this point.
But this article assumes they'll be healthy, or at least that they'll be able to manage their injuries well. After all, no one wants to think about a "what-if" season where you finish with half of your team on the IR list, right?
So, if Carolina stays healthy, then the Panthers should be at least 4-4 at this point, and will probably be better than that.
You can expect the Panthers to be among the league leaders at running the ball again, and people outside the Carolinas will be surprised to see Jake Delhomme taking care of the ball.
On defense, the players will have adapted well to Meeks' style, but don't look for great stats yet. With the offenses the Panthers face in the first half, just being in the middle of the pack defensively will be an accomplishment.
Around the NFC South, the race will be emerging between the New Orleans Saints and the Panthers. After a dismal start, Tampa Bay will be looking for spoiler opportunities, and Atlanta will be struggling through the difficult part of their schedule with no defense of note.
The Saints will get a slow start, but Williams will have the defense playing better than it has in years, and all the Saints need is a decent unit on that side of the ball to be a real playoff contender.
Their big question will be whether they can win on the road, as they only play three of their last eight in the friendly confines of the Superdome.
The Panthers, on the other hand, only have three road games in the second half, and if they're 5-3 or 6-2 at this point in the season, they'll be the team to beat for the division title.
Games Nine through Twelve
The third quarter of the season looks to be the easiest on the schedule, with three home games and a winnable one on the road. But November is the only month where John Fox has failed to post a winning record.
Here are the games Carolina will play, with thoughts on each.
Week Ten, the Atlanta Falcons
2008 Record: 11-5
2008 Offensive Rank: 6th (14th in Passing, 2nd in Rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 24th (21st in Passing, 25th against the run)
So here it goes, rematch time. The first game was in Atlanta early in the season, this contest is in the friendly confines of Bank of America stadium.
In the first contest, the Falcons are coming off a winnable game and will have been riding high. But after they play the Panthers they get to go to New England, to San Francisco, then host Chicago before going to Dallas and to New Orleans. Finally they get a home breather versus a stout Washington defense before facing the Panthers on the road.
Forgive me for thinking they'll have a difficult time assembling a winning record by this point. In fact, this is the part of the season where their wheels are going to start to come off.
Carolina will be looking at a Falcons team with an explosive offense and a porous defense that lacks both talent and leadership. And the Atlanta team that was so lucky on the injury front last year may be struggling with them in 2009.
Mike Mularkey's offense will probably be more explosive than it was in 2008, but that also means the defense will be spending more time on the field. And if they end up swapping field goals for touchdowns, there will be a hint of desperation in Atlanta,
It's happened to New Orleans in the past two years. Great offenses with poor defenses just don't win consistently in the NFL.
The Panthers will probably drop the first contest, and will probably win this one. Or they'll win in Atlanta, and disappoint the home team here. The Falcons and Panthers are probably headed for another split in 2009, their fourth in as many seasons.
Atlanta leads this series 17-11
Week Eleven, the Miami Dolphins
2008 Record: 11-5
2008 Offensive Rank: 12th (10th in passing, 11th in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 15th (25th in Passing, 10th against the run)
The Dolphins were one of the surprise teams of 2008, going from a 1-15 season in 2007 to a first place finish in the AFC North and a playoff spot.
They did it on the strength of a favorable schedule and improved defensive play. The Dolphins switched to a 3-4 defense in 2008, and that unit was the key to their success. Their consistency as a team, however, was another story.
The point differential in their games was just 345-317, but they played in only three games where the outcome was decided by four points or less. When the matchups were favorable, they won and won big. When they weren't, they got killed.
On the defensive line the Dolphins look set at nose tackle, but Jason Ferguson will turn 35 this year. At the ends, second year men Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford will try and make fans forget Vonnie Holliday's presence and leadership.
In the 3-4 though, it's the linebackers who star. The Dolphins have some good options there, with Channing Crowder and Akin Ayodele in the middle, Pro Bowler Joey Porter on one side, and on the other Jason Taylor and Mike Roth. Crowder has had knee problems in the past and Taylor's getting up there in age, but this is a solid unit.
In the secondary is where the questions lie. Cornerback Will Allen is a Pro Bowler, but they need someone to emerge on the other side to replace Andre' Goodman, who signed with the Broncos in the offseason.
They also need help at Free Safety, and may have gotten a steal in free agency. The Raiders severely overpaid for Gibril Wilson, and had to let him go in a salary cap move. The Dolphins were the lucky team to snag him, and he should be an improvement over Renaldo Hill.
On offense Chad Pennington will still be the starting quarterback this year. He's never had a big arm, and his receiving corps of Davone Bess, Ted Ginn Jr., and Greg Camarillo only combined for five touchdowns last season.
Miami uses their tight ends as receivers a lot, and led by Anthony Fasano that group scored ten touchdowns in 2008. When your tight ends outscore the receivers, no one is going to think of your offense as dynamic.
But the Dolphins like to mix it up in the running game, bringing back the popularity of the wildcat offense. Panther fans will remember how Dan Henning used this with DeAngelo Williams to beat Atlanta in 2007.
In Miami, it's Ronnie Brown who lines up to run it, and they also drafted Pat White, who projects as a wildcat option in the NFL, or he may be used to help out the receiving corps.
The Fins also have Ricky Williams, who's getting old but can still run the ball.
So in sum, the Dolphins don't have any stars on offense. But they have a group of capable players. Capable or not, they can be shut down. And they will be.
Unlike their 2008 season, the Dolphins play a brutal schedule--the hardest in the NFL. At this point in the season the age they have on defense will probably be showing itself in the form of injuries, and there will be a whole book out on how to handle the Miami offense.
The Panthers have never beaten the Dolphins. But the Dolphins won't stop the Panthers offense, and at Bank of America stadium they'll struggle to move the ball. The streak ends here.
The Panthers have a lifetime record of 0-3 against the Dolphins
Week Twelve, at the New York Jets
2008 Record: 9-7
2008 Offensive Rank: 16th (16th in passing, 9th in rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: 16th (29th in Passing, 7th against the run)
The New York Jets went for broke in 2008, putting their season in the hands of Brett Favre. Unfortunately for them, they peaked in the third quarter of the season with a convincing win in Tennessee, then went 1-4 to close out their season at 9-7.
That finish probably nailed the coffin shut on Eric Mangini's tenure, as he was fired the day after the season ended. His replacement is one of the game's best defensive minds, former Raven defensive coordinator Rex Ryan.
They also replaced Favre by moving up in the first round to select Mark Sanchez in the draft. Sanchez ran a pro-style offense at USC, but the NFL is a much quicker game and success in college is no guarantee in the NFL.
Still, he has the tools, and should develop into a quality starter in time. But in New York, he may not have the tools to win this year.
Laverneous Coles left the team in free agency, leaving Jericho Cotchery as the first receiver. Cotchery is good, but he's a possession guy at best, and won't perform well against the other teams' top cornerback.
The Jets have a pass-catching tight end in Dustin Keller, but that's about it. Outside of Cotchery and Keller, they have a group of players who combined for 75 catches last year, but none of them really asserted themselves as candidates for the number two job.
The frontrunner is probably former 7th round pick Chansi Stuckey, who played his college ball at Clemson. Former quarterback Brad Smith may also win the job, or it could be a free agent. That much uncertainty doesn't bode well for Sanchez.
At least there's some real talent at running back. Thomas Jones was the AFC's leading rusher, and he's spelled by home-run threat Leon Washington. Both of them benefit from a very solid run-blocking offensive line.
But Jones is 31 and old running backs wear down as the season goes on. If the Jets are going to win, it will be on the back of their defense.
That probably suits Ryan just fine, as he's followed that model in Baltimore for years.
Up front the Jets have pro bowler Kris Jenkins at the nose tackle; and Shaun Ellis and former Raven Marques Douglas will line up at the ends.
At linebacker Ryan brought another Raven with him in Bart Scott, and he will team with David Harris on the inside to form a solid core. With those two manning the middle behind Jenkins, the Jets will be difficult to run on in 2009.
On the outside, what the Jets really need is for someone to light a fire under 2008 first round pick Vernon Gholston. He has the physical tools to be a star in Ryan's defense, but if he disappears again then Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas will man the edges.
The secondary will boast yet another ex-Raven in strong safety Jim Leonhard (do you detect a theme here?). He'll team with budding star Kerry Rhodes in the middle, while the cornerback positions will be manned by pro bowler Darrel Revis, and former pro bowler Lito Sheppard.
Expect the Jets' defense to look a lot like the Ravens', and to be improved on last year's unit. Points will be hard to come by in New York this year, as the Jets won't score a lot and neither will their opponents.
Carolina's defense should be more than good enough to confound a rookie quarterback. Given that Williams and Stewart are hard to shut down, look at this game as a good candidate for the Panthers to steal one on the road.
Carolina and New York are even in the series at 2-2
Week Thirteen, The Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2008 Record: 9-7
2008 Offensive Rank: 14th (11th in Passing, 15th in Rushing)
2008 Defensive Rank: ninth (fourth in Passing, 19th against the run)
This is the second meeting in 2009 between the Buccaneers and the Panthers, and given the likely state of both teams it's the best candidate for a win in the quarter.
Assuming the Bucs manage the upset in week six, and that's a big assumption, then this game is going to be a hell of a payback time.
If they don't, this game is still in Charlotte, the Panthers will be playing for playoff positioning, and the Bucs will be playing for pride, at best.
A look at the Bucs' schedule tells the story. After the first Panthers game, they're probably looking at a 2-4 record at best. They they get to host New England and Green Bay before heading to the Dolphins. They get a strong New Orleans team before going to the Falcons, and then they head into this contest.
If the Bucs have more than three wins at this point, Morris should be getting consideration for coach of the year honors.
But then again, that's exactly what people thought about Atlanta last year.
This bears repeating. The Bucs have a young and aggressive defense. They lost a lot of personnel, but at this point in the year they'll know who their leaders are, and while other teams are getting tired they'll be in a position to take advantage of their youth and depth.
And on offense, the Josh Freeman show will be in full swing. The rookie will have a feel for the NFL by then, and his coordinator will know what he can and can't do.
Don't look for a conventional offense here, they'll probably be relying on some gimmicks to move the ball. But moving the ball is moving the ball, regardless of how it's done.
And this is team has a lot of the same players that looked like Super Bowl candidates last year at this time.
This is still probably a Panther win, but any given Sunday and all that...
Carolina leads the series 10-7
This is by far the easiest stretch of games for the Panthers this season. After hitting the NFC East hard in the first quarter and dealing with some high powered offenses in the second, the third quarter is largely marked by games against teams that will be thinking about defense first.
Given that the Panthers are set on offense and questionable on defense, the mediocre offenses they face here may be just what the doctor ordered to give the club some confidence heading into the brutal home stretch.
In 2008, the Panthers really started to come together as a dominant running team later in the year. The same thing will happen this year, although in 2009 no one will be taken by surprise.
The Panthers should put together a 3-1 effort here, and don't be surprised at 4-0 either. This year the Bad November story gets a new chapter.
So unless there have been a ton of injuries, the Panthers should be in the 7-5 or 8-4 range after this quarter. That's going to look good, but although they'll appear in the drivers seat for the division, December will be a killer.
The Panthers will probably be playing four teams in the top of their division, and the last game against New Orleans will be for the division title.
But that's a subject for another article. Tune in next week, when we finish out the 2009 season.
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