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In My Opinion

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Fowler: This is the year Panthers go back-to-back to playoffs

To think that the Carolina Panthers have been around for 20 years now is amazing. Remember how cute they were during that first year at Clemson? Now you can’t even say they are teenagers anymore.

But to really grow up, the Panthers must post consecutive winning seasons. They have never done that.

Finally, this year, they will. I predict the Panthers will go 10-6 in 2014, cobbling together enough wins to also make the playoffs for a second straight season (although this time as a wild card).

Panthers naysayers have had a field day throughout Carolina’s uneven August, which has been marked by inconsistent exhibition performances and concern over Cam Newton’s health (first his ankle, now his fractured rib).

The offensive line hasn’t looked good and the running game hasn’t, either. The defensive line never came close to sacking Tom Brady during the third exhibition. The wide receivers have been forgettable except for rookie Kelvin Benjamin, who will have a 1,000-yard season this year.

If you step back for a moment and focus on hits rather than misses, though, you will understand why this is still a darn good football team. It has the 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year in Luke Kuechly, the 2013 AP Coach of the Year in Ron Rivera, a top-five defense and fine special teams.

The questions arise primarily on offense, where Newton’s effectiveness will be a major question until he gets his confidence and mobility all the way back. I think Benjamin will be a 1,000-yard receiver, but Newton has to find another one to hook up with and the offensive line must keep him cleaner.

There will be a nasty loss or two along the way, maybe very early, in part because the Panthers still aren’t set up to score enough points.

But the defense will keep Carolina in every game, kicker Graham Gano will win at least one at the end and by midseason I think Newton will be rolling again.

Now my friend and colleague Tom Sorensen’s prediction of 8-8 is far more in line with the sort of record most national publications have picked for the Panthers. The prevalent thinking outside the Carolinas boils down to five words: “Last season was a fluke.”

Certainly, Tom might be right. But let’s check the record book for the past three years, shall we?

In 2011, I predicted the Panthers would go 6-10. Tom predicted 3-13. They went 6-10.

In 2012, I predicted the Panthers would go 8-8. Tom predicted 10-6 and a playoff appearance. They went 7-9.

In 2013, I picked the Panthers to go 10-6 and to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Tom picked 8-8. They went 12-4 and won the NFC South before losing in the playoffs to San Francisco.

Add it all up, and that’s three straight years in which I have made the better Panthers pick. I have missed the team’s record by an average of one game per season.

Tom is the Jimmy Clausen of NFL predictions. He routinely fires high and wide, crumples at the first sign of pressure and misses the mark by an average of 3.3 games per season.

Of course, as they say in all those warnings about investing in the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

But it’s not a bad place to start.

So believe my pick. You’ll be right – and you’ll feel better, too.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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