If you, as a Carolina Panthers fan, have felt a little lighter this week, you probably think it only has to do with winning the season opener.
It’s more than that, though. You feel lighter because your team actually has a winning record for the first time since the 2015 season – although that fact is in danger Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
Carolina is 1-0, and that’s no small feat given the Panthers were never above .500 all last season. The highwater mark of the 2016 season – if you can call it that – came in Week 2 when Carolina got to 1-1. And that was it.
Four straight losses followed to make the Panthers 1-5, as the team couldn’t seem to follow the first rule for when you find yourself in a hole – stop digging. Carolina spent the final 10 weeks winning a couple and losing a couple and ending up a thoroughly unsatisfactory 6-10.
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So this – while not unfamiliar ground – is ground that has not been covered in awhile. That’s what feels so different.
▪ The TV announcers will talk a lot about the chess match between Bills head coach Sean McDermott – the former Carolina defensive coordinator – and his old team. But I think that whole thing is overrated, honestly. In the NBA, teams sometimes play each other seven times in a row in the playoffs. Everybody knows everything. Everyone knows James Harden is going to go left – the question is whether you can stop it.
McDermott knows darn well the Panthers will probably give the ball to Jonathan Stewart on their first offensive play, because that’s what Carolina does about 90 percent of the time on its first play. The question is whether the Bills can stop it – and everything after that.
▪ It will be interesting to see if Bill Polian’s prediction comes true Sunday. Polian – the Hall of Fame GM who worked at both Carolina and Buffalo and has lived mostly in Charlotte for the past two decades – said on TV the Panthers would have very little homefield advantage Sunday because Buffalo fans “are all over the place in Carolina.”
Bills fans do travel well, for sure, and are willing to buy up expensive tickets when needed. I wonder how many Carolina fans are skipping the home opener and selling their tickets for a handsome profit? Stephanie Rivera, the wife of Panthers coach Ron Rivera, publicized Polian’s words on Twitter and challenged Panthers fans to make them untrue. We will see if it works.
▪ LeSean McCoy is the key Sunday for Buffalo. If the Panthers hold him to a reasonable number of yards – say, under 75 – they should win the game. McCoy can be such a game-changer.
Ultimately, though, I think Carolina can survive McCoy, and will also survive the game. My prediction: Carolina 19, Buffalo 17.