Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton Will Lead the Panthers to NFC South Title in 2012

Jimmy Grappone@cltsportshubCorrespondent IApril 2, 2012

Carolina Panthers: Cam Newton Will Lead the Panthers to NFC South Title in 2012

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    The Carolina Panthers (6-10) were among the most improved teams in the NFL in 2011.

    Upon hiring Ron Rivera as head coach and drafting Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, I predicted the Panthers would finish .500 over the next two seasons with six wins in '11 and 10 wins in '12.

    However, the Panthers finished the 2011 season on a hot streak with four wins in a five-game stretch before losing badly to the New Orleans Saints in the season finale, and they will be much better next season on both sides of the ball with play makers returning to both units after an injury-plagued season.

    Additionally, with a regime change in Tampa Bay, stagnation in Atlanta and way too much "Bountygate" drama in New Orleans, the NFC South is more wide open than it has been in the past several seasons. 

    Bold Prediction

    I now believe my prediction for 10 Panthers wins in 2012 may actually be on the low side.

    Panthers fans have seen their team rise from rags to riches in the past, namely when the 2003-2004 "Cardiac Cats" reached Super Bowl XXXVIII (38) after winning just one game a couple seasons earlier.

    Though I am not predicting a Super Bowl berth for Carolina in year two of the Cam Newton and Ron Rivera era, I do believe they will make the 2013 NFL playoffs, and it will not be as a wild card.

    I will be the first writer on and one of the first writers anywhere to go on record to predict an NFC South championship for the Carolina Panthers in 2012.

    Let the comments begin.

No. 1: Cam Newton Will Be Better in His Second Season

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    Now that Cam Newton's record-setting rookie season is in the books, he will be hard-pressed to match his first year performance in his second season, right?

    Not necessarily, and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said as much when he marveled over Newton's rookie play at the NFL owners meeting last week when he called the Panthers' quarterback "an extraordinarily rare athlete" who played to his strengths in Rob Chudzinski's offense.

    “Look out for those guys. Holy mackerel. If he can just stay out there, they’re going to be a fantastic team.”
    Pete Carroll at NFC coaches breakfast via the Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person

    Newton set records for most passing yards by a rookie in a single game (432 versus Green Bay in Week 2), most yards passing by a rookie in a single season (4,051 yards) and most rushing touchdowns by an NFL quarterback in a single season with 14 scores on the ground.

    However, Newton turned the ball over too often in 2011 with 17 interceptions, including five picks in two losses to the Falcons, and a pair of fumbles, so he does have room for improvement.

    Newton is a football savant and has the chance to be that rare, insanely athletic player whose intellect and ultra-competitiveness exceed even his physical ability and allow him to reach dizzying heights resulting in mulitple championships, MVP awards and a Hall of Fame career.

    While it is much too early to bronze his bust in Canton after just one season, Newton has the makeup and the talent to be one of the best quarterbacks of his generation.

    Newton's drive to win may exceed every athlete and former athlete in town, including Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan, and you can bet that with a full offseason of OTA's and mini-camps, and another offseason spent with Chris Weinke at IMG's training facilities, the Panthers quarterback will be ready to play better than ever to avoid a sophomore slump in 2012.

    He may not pass for as many yards or rush for as many touchdowns in 2012, but he very well may lead his team to twice as many wins—12—in 2012.

No. 2: Panthers' Defense Will Not Be so Porous in 2012

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    The Carolina Panthers defense was decimated in 2011 with the loss of former Pro Bowl linebackers Thomas Davis (knee) and Jon Beason (Achilles) in the first two weeks of the season.

    The unit that was the team's strength during former coach John Fox's tenure became one of the league's worst in 2011 despite hiring one of the NFL's top defensive coordinators, Ron Rivera, as Fox's replacement.

    Carolina ranked 25th against the run (130.8 ypg), 24th against the pass (246.8 ypg), 28th in total defense (377.6 ypg) and 27th in points allowed (268 ppg) in 2011.

    The Panthers are expected to focus on defense with their first two picks of the 2012 NFL draft and they should be able to select a run stopping defensive tackle or play making cornerback with the ninth overall selection.

    Carolina restructured the oft-injured Davis' contract to enable the talented outside linebacker to remain a Panther and attempt another comeback from injury in 2012.

    Last year's fourth-round draft pick, cornerback Brandon Hogan from West Virginia, should also be healthy and ready to compete for the cornerback spot opposite Chris Gamble, which was occupied by Captain Munnerlyn in 2011.

    With Rivera's defensive mindset and All-Pro talent at several positions, the Panthers will be primed to keep opposing offenses off of the field and out of the end zone as long as they remain healthy and keep all of their main pieces on the field.

    Finally, with Beason's return and the likely addition of a top defensive tackle and a quality cornerback in the 2012 NFL draft, there is no reason the Panthers' "D" can not regain their old form as a top 10 unit again this season.

No. 3: New Orleans Saints Turmoil in Wake of Bountygate

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    Last season's NFC South champions, the New Orleans Saints (13-3), have been perennial playoff contenders since Drew Brees' arrival in 2006

    Previously nicknamed the 'Aints for their decades of futility, the Saints have won three division titles, a wild card berth and a Super Bowl title in the record-setting quarterback's six years in N'awlins.

    However, the Saints are in the midst of the most tumultuous offseason in recent NFL history with the recent revelation of "Bountygate" in which former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and many Saints defensive players participated in a bounty program which paid players for hits that resulted in opponents being injured and knocked out of games.

    WIlliams has been suspended indefinitely by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, while head coach Sean Payton likely is out for the seasonthe coach will appeal his suspension this week—and punishments involving for Saints players involved in the program and subsequent cover-up will be meted out in due time.

    The Saints have also been stripped of their second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.

    New Orleans' offense remains supremely talented as Brees and his favorite targets, including Darren Sproles, Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, will be back in 2012.

    Even so, the adversity the Saints have faced, and will continue to endure in the biggest scandal since the New England Patriots' "Spygate" in 2007, may be enough to allow the Panthers to eclipse the Saints in 2012.



No. 4: Close Calls vs Atlanta Falcons

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    The Atlanta Falcons (10-6) slipped to a second-place finish in the NFC South after winning the division with 13 wins in 2010 and backed into the playoffs as a wild card, only to get knocked out in their first postseason game for the second consecutive year.

    Carolina led twice entering the fourth quarter in their games against the Falcons in 2011, only to squander opportunities to win with untimely turnovers, defensive breakdowns and poor decision-making by Cam Newton late in each contest.

    The Falcons will pose a difficult challenge for the Panthers again in 2012 with their bowling ball of a running back, Michael Turner, and with Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez providing Matt Ryan with one of the best receiving trios in the NFL.

    However, the gap should tighten between the Panthers and the Falcons in year two of the Newton/Rivera era, and Cam Newton will be especially motivated to beat his hometown team in 2012 after last season's disheartening losses.

    I expect Carolina to at least split with Atlanta in 2012 with an outside chance of pulling off the revenge series sweep.

No. 5: Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Regression

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    The Panthers used the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12) as their personal whipping boys in 2011 by sweeping the season series against the NFC South's incumbent cellar dwellers.

    In the first contest in Tampa, Cam Newton ran for three scores to break the NFL's all-time single season record for most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in the Panthers' 38-19 win.

    In their second meeting in Charlotte, the Panthers had their highest scoring output in a game since 2002 and Newton broke the NFL's all-time single season rookie passing record against the Bucs in a 48-16 trouncing.

    The Buccaneers are determined to improve upon last year's disappointing season, and they have already added free agent wide receiver Vincent Jackson, All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright in a busy offseason.

    Tampa Bay also re-signed future Hall of Fame cornerback Ronde Barber for a 16th season, and the Bucs will be solid at the running back and quarterback positions with LeGarrette Blount and Josh Freeman returning for their third and fourth seasons, respectively.

    However, despite the Bucs' offseason improvements, Carolina still has Tampa Bay's number and the Panthers should have no problem dialing long-distance over and over again in 2012 whether they are in the 704 or the 813.

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