One good game. One mediocre game. One bad game.
Through three weeks of the NFL season, that’s what the Carolina Panthers have given us so far. They walloped San Francisco. They played well enough to have a shot at a game-winning field goal against Denver – then missed it. And they looked awful for the final 50 minutes against Minnesota, frittering away an early 10-0 lead and losing 22-10.
So now what?
We will have a good indication of which way this Panthers season is headed by about 4 p.m. Sunday, when the game at Atlanta has finished up. A Panthers victory would put Carolina at 2-2 and tied for the division lead in the NFC South, which Carolina has won three times in a row.
But a loss would push the Panthers to 1-3, two games behind Atlanta and in real trouble. While the Falcons lead the NFL in points and total offense, that’s partly a reflection of the weak defenses Atlanta has played. There’s no way the Falcons are as good a team overall as Denver or Minnesota, so a loss against Atlanta would be harder to explain.
‘A production-based business’
Already, Carolina (1-2) has lost as many games in three weeks as it did all last season, when the Panthers went 17-2. But wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. insisted that no one is panicking yet.
“We’re not dead,” Ginn said. “We’re not out. There’s no reason to come in and hang your head. We’re good.”
The Panthers should be good, with nine of 10 Pro Bowlers returning from last year’s Super Bowl team and no long-term injuries as of yet to key personnel (although offensive tackle Michael Oher will miss this game with a concussion and running back Jonathan Stewart is out with a hamstring injury). The Panthers only scored 10 points a week ago against Minnesota while allowing Cam Newton to be sacked eight times – the second-most sacks Newton has ever taken in a single game in his six-year career. Newton never got the ball to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, something the quarterback has vowed will never happen again.
Ginn knows the 10 points Carolina scored last week (and in the Super Bowl, too, for that matter) won’t cut it against the Falcons. Atlanta is averaging an NFL-high 34.7 points per game.
“This is a production-based business,” Ginn said. “If you don’t know how to move forward and get better, then why are you in this game?”
‘It’s got to start somewhere’
Atlanta has often given the Panthers fits in the Georgia Dome, which will make way for a new retractable-roof stadium in 2017. Carolina came into the Dome at 14-0 last season and had whipped Atlanta 38-0 only two weeks before in Charlotte. But the Falcons didn’t allow Newton to throw a single pass of 20 or more yards, got a 70-yard circus catch from Julio Jones over linebacker Luke Kuechly and won 20-13.
For three years now, Carolina has been the class of the NFC South. Now the Panthers must prove it again, as they play divisional opponents in each of the next three weeks. This game at Atlanta could well be the most difficult of those three.
“This is not how we wanted to start the season,” Kuechly said. “But the season is still in front of us. It’s got to start somewhere.”
There’s no time like the present. But then again – if the 2016 Panthers can’t win against Atlanta – they may not have much of a future.