Despite a rookie quarterback, a non-existent running game and a defense missing its two biggest stars, the Panthers still have a shot to make the playoffs. It's a long shot, but a shot.
If they wish to keep the dream alive, they will need the following players (and Cam Newton, but he was too obvious to list) to step up or continue to have the big seasons they are having.
This past weekend, despite the rain and terrible playing conditions, Cam Newton did not get sacked. The same could not have been said the previous two weeks. So far, the offensive line has given up eight sacks and 14 quarterback hits. That can be expected with a mobile quarterback, but the line must do better.
The Panthers are in the top half of the league in sacks allowed and quarterback hits, but with Jeff Otah seemingly back to full health, hopefully this issue is resolved.
A starting offensive line of Otah, Jordan Gross, Travelle Wharton, Ryan Kalil and Geoff Hangartner is one of the best in the NFL. If they can provide the protection they have in the past, Newton should stay upright and the running game might get back on track.
Charles Johnson might be the guy who got paid, but Greg Hardy has been just as dominant in the pass rush.
Johnson got paid this offseason and has been solid so far, producing about four tackles and a sack per game. Hardy has been the more disruptive of the two and the bigger playmaker, though. In addition to having more tackles (which is not the goal of a defensive end), Hardy has a forced fumble, two sacks, a safety and a broken-up pass under his belt thus far.
While he lines up over the "weak" offensive tackle and is not facing the same kind of attention as Johnson, Hardy is coming at a quarterback that can generally see him coming and is still making plays.
If the Panthers wish to make the playoffs, Hardy will need to continue to provide the type of pressure off the edge that he has so far, early in the season.
Jon Beason and Thomas Davis are out. That leaves James Anderson as the remaining starting linebacker that started the season with the Panthers.
Anderson has 21 tackles this season, which leads the Carolina Panthers, but stats are not the reason he is important to the Panthers. As the player who has taken over for Beason as the defensive play caller, Anderson has much more control over what the defense does than he ever has before.
Despite the loss to Green Bay, Anderson looked to have the defensive unit working well in the home opener in the first half. In Jacksonville, neither defense or offense looked all that great on account of the weather, so he gets an incomplete for that.
If the Panthers wish to extend their season past into 2012, Anderson will have to make a big step towards being a leader, not just a good linebacker.
For all the money the Carolina Panthers just paid DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart might be the better running back.
Neither back has had a great rushing start to the year, but Stewart can at least say he is involved in the passing game. Stewart had eight receptions for 100 yards against Green Bay and is the third leading receiver on the team.
Stewart is also the second leading rusher behind Cam Newton. This isn't the production that you would expect out of Stewart, but he is heading in the right direction. Against Jacksonville and its stout run defense, Stewart averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
Compare that to Williams, who has saw his yards per carry hover at 2.3 yards per carry and not deviate all that much from game to game. Consider last week, Stewart almost averaged per carry what Williams is boasting as his longest carry of the season, eight yards.
If the running game is going to gain any traction, it seems Stewart is going to be the one leading the team into the playoffs.
This offseason it looked, at times, like Steve Smith was going to be in another team's uniform. He had a change of heart and stayed and has become an elite receiver again because of it.
Smith is the best weapon the Carolina Panthers have on offense. That is saying something considering they have DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart, Greg Olsen, Jeremy Shockey and Cam Newton.
It will be hard for the receiver to lead the Panthers to the playoffs since a receiver is so reliant on others to do their job. Smith, though, is an emotional leader and has clearly bonded with the Panthers' rookie quarterback.
If Newton and Smith can grow close, and Smith can become a mentor, the Panthers have an outside shot at the playoffs.