If there is one consolation for my prediction of this Carolina Panthers season, it is this: It cannot be worse than my pick of a year ago.
In this space in 2016, I took an ill-advised leap of faith, picking the Panthers to win the Super Bowl. It was the first time I had ever done that in more than a dozen years of predictions, and it will likely be the last: Carolina went 6-10 and there wasn’t a week that went by that somebody didn’t remind me of that pick.
Last season was a reminder of how fragile things are in the NFL, even when the roster is stuffed with good players. Remember, the Panthers of 2016 only lost one major player from the Super Bowl squad of 2015 – cornerback Josh Norman – and they still finished last in the NFC South. This year’s team once again has very high top-end talent – by my count, six of the top 10 Panthers of all time will suit up for the 2017 squad.
But they all could get hurt in Week 1, of course. Every season twists and turns like the Mississippi River.
Where will this one end up?
A lot will depend on the evolving offense and quarterback Cam Newton – and we’ll all need to have patience with that group. But the Panthers are hedging their bet in one key way this season: They aren’t changing the defense at all, other than to stick a couple of new players into the system that nearly always produces a top-10 defense.
That’s the way they will stay in games this season. They aren’t going to score 30 points in every game. But as long as linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis stay healthy and the secondary doesn’t get completely shredded, they may be able to eke out some 16-13 victories, too.
Because of that defense and what I considered a good offseason in free agency by the mysteriously fired general manager Dave Gettleman, I am somewhat bullish on the 2017 Panthers after watching them through training camp and much of August.
This is not a Super Bowl level of bullishness, mind you.
But I think they will be a good bit better than last year. I am forecasting a 10-6 season that puts the Panthers into the playoffs, as a wildcard team, behind an Atlanta team that once again wins the NFC South. The Panthers will then win one playoff game and lose in the divisional round, in the NFL’s elite eight round.
So 10-6, after last year’s 6-10. It’s a mirror-image pick, a reversal of what happened a year ago.
But don’t take that one to Vegas. As we all know, I’ve been wrong before.