Carolina Panthers

NFC’s top Super Bowl contenders (other than the Panthers)

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had career and league highs in quarterback rating despite a shaky offensive line in 2015.
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson had career and league highs in quarterback rating despite a shaky offensive line in 2015. AP

For eight straight seasons, the NFC Championship Game was decided by eight points or fewer.

The Carolina Panthers snapped that streak in January when they railroaded the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 in Charlotte on their way to Super Bowl 50.

Fans shouldn’t get used to that, though. The NFC appears to be the power conference this season in the NFL, and heavy is the Panthers’ head that wears the crown going into 2016.

The NFC is top-heavy this season. Carolina figures to compete for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, along with the Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and Green Bay Packers.

“I think it could be tough,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the Observer last month. “To me there’s no guarantee in the NFC this year.

“I feel pretty good about who we are now, but I look at the NFC and say this year’s going to be strong.”

The Panthers will play nearly all of the NFC contenders during the regular season. There’s a Week 8 game at home against Arizona, a Week 13 matchup in Seattle and a Monday Night Football game in Week 15 in Washington against the reigning NFC East champs.

“There isn’t a game you walk into where you’re just going to roll the ball out and you’re going to win,” Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman said. “It just doesn’t work that way. The other team gets paid to play, too. And there are some really good teams in the NFC. We’re just going to have to understand that last year’s over – and we do understand that.

“The game is on. The season’s on and it’s go time.”

Here’s a look at the Panthers’ toughest competition in the NFC:

Green Bay

The loss of Jordy Nelson last season affected the Packers more than Kelvin Benjamin’s loss affected the Panthers.

Nelson went from 85 catches for 1,314 yards in 2013 to 98 catches for 1,519 yards in 2014 and seemed ready to take another jump in 2015. Then he tore his ACL during the preseason, and the Packers had to scramble.

Aaron Rodgers didn’t have a veteran tight end like Greg Olsen to fall back on, and Green Bay instead had to rush to get 23-year-old Richard Rodgers up to speed at that position. Running back Eddie Lacy was unreliable, and there was no consistency in Green Bay’s backfield.

What saved the Packers? Randall Cobb, and veteran James Jones coming back to have the best statistical season of his career.

“Green Bay gets Jordy Nelson back and their offense is better, and they went out and got some offensive linemen to help them,” said Rivera, referencing two tackles the Packers selected in the 2016 draft.

Though unfortunate, what will also help the Packers get through the NFC North is the devastating knee injury to Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

The Vikings were set to be another NFC power before they lost their franchise quarterback for the season Tuesday. The Packers went 1-1 against the Vikings last season, and each game was decided by four points.

Taking up a quarter of the Packers’ schedule are games against the Bears and Lions, and both teams are expected to struggle.

Green Bay’s defensive front seven is its weakness, with its defensive strength being in the secondary. It’s not the defense that’s going to win or lose games for these Packers though.

Rodgers has the best passer rating (104.1) of all NFL quarterbacks in history. In switching offenses and missing Nelson last year, Rodgers had a down season. Here’s what that looks like from him: 10-6 as a starter, 60.7 completion percentage, 31 touchdowns, eight interceptions and two fourth-quarter comeback wins.

“There is a lot of mystery,” ESPN NFL analyst Jon Gruden said recently about the NFC. “I’m anxious to see Green Bay. I think they’re my team in the NFC.”

Arizona

Everyone is watching the Cardinals. Arizona is the team Rivera and Gettleman mentioned first when discussing the NFC, and for good reason.

Carson Palmer returns after a season that earned him one MVP vote, with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Darren Fells to throw the ball to. The Cardinals have great depth in their backfield with David Johnson and Chris Johnson, and the offensive line gets stronger with the addition of guard Evan Mathis and another year in the system for Charlotte native D.J. Humphries.

Coach Bruce Arians has his background in offense, and last season the Cardinals scored the second-most points (behind the Panthers) in the league.

Though Gettleman might not be a believer in teams having a certain “window” for winning, clearly the Cardinals do. They tacked on another year to Palmer and Fitzgerald’s contracts despite their age (Palmer is 36, Fitzgerald is 33).

“Arizona is trying to set themselves up for this big run with what they’ve done,” Rivera said. “They’ve made some terrific moves and brought in some really good football players.”

The Cardinals gave up only 313 points last season, seventh-best in the league. They should be even better in 2016.

Arizona traded for Chandler Jones, who, for all his off-the-field mistakes, is one of the best pass rushers in the league. They drafted Robert Nkemdiche, who, for all of his off-the-field mistakes, was one of the best pass rushers in college last season.

See a pattern?

It works for the Cardinals because it worked out with Tyrann Mathieu. Arizona took the Honey Badger in the third round of the 2013 draft despite his off-the-field errors, and he straightened himself out with the guidance of Pro Bowl corner Patrick Peterson.

Three years later, Mathieu is the highest-paid safety in the league and he’s coming off a torn ACL.

Seattle

No NFC team has played in more postseason games since 2012 than the Seahawks.

In 10 playoff games, the Seahawks are 7-3 with two Super Bowl appearances and one Super Bowl victory. Their three playoff losses have come by a combined 13 points, including a seven-point loss to the Panthers in last season’s divisional round.

People around the league, including Gettleman and Rivera, expect the Seahawks to be strong again in 2016.

Christine Michael and Thomas Rawls could be the best one-two punch in the league in terms of running backs. Michael had 192 yards in three games in spot duty, and Rawls carried the load when Marshawn Lynch was injured, rushing for 5.6 yards per carry.

Despite getting sacked 45 times last season, more than any other year of his career, Russell Wilson managed a career- and league-high 110.1 passer rating.

Seattle also boasts, again, one of the best defenses in the league. Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril set the edges, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright take the second level and Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor make up the founding members of the Legion of Boom.

By now, Panthers fans know almost every member of Seattle’s defense. Carolina has played Seattle six times since 2012. For a while there, this wasn’t considered a rivalry.

“They’ve got to win more games, don’t they, for it to be a rivalry?” Wagner said during the week of Super Bowl XLVI, when Seattle played the Patriots.

Now the Panthers have taken the past two games from Seattle. Game 7 of the Wilson-Cam Newton era will be played in Seattle on Dec. 4.

The bottom line

When interviewed for this story, Gettleman recalled the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the NFC was clearly the stronger conference.

“You had San Francisco, the Giants, Chicago. And then you had Dallas in the early ’90s,” he said. “There were some powerful teams.”

It seems to be the case now in the mid-2010s. These four teams – Carolina, Arizona, Seattle and Green Bay – have been in the NFC Championship Game in the past two seasons.

There’s potential to see a conference championship preview this season with Panthers games against Arizona and Seattle.

Though the Panthers could bemoan the schedule, Gettleman looks at it a different way.

“Our schedule,” he started, “you know … they’ve got to play us.”

Jonathan Jones: 704-358-5323, @jjones9

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