Come on in, Carolina fans. Sit down, won’t you?
I have a little dose of bad news.
Can I get you a cup of coffee first? Bottled water? No? Well, let me just come right out with it then.
I am predicting the Panthers to go 8-8 this season, narrowly missing the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
If you’re looking for more optimism, you will find it with my wise old owl of a colleague, Tom Sorensen. He is picking Carolina to go 10-6, win the NFC South for the third straight year and make the playoffs, and he could certainly be right on all three things.
But I think these Panthers suffered a colossal blow in August with the season-ending knee injury to Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin was one of the five players this team could least afford to lose, because while the Panthers have more No. 2 and No. 3-type wide receivers on this team, they have no one ready to become No. 1 like Benjamin was.
Although quarterback Cam Newton still doesn’t have enough elite skill players around him, Carolina will try to make do. Tight end Greg Olsen certainly should have another big year and rookie Devin Funchess may emerge. Corey Brown won’t always drop everything. But this team is still going to struggle on offense, just as it did a year ago when it ranked 19th in the NFL in scoring.
And defensively, I worry about the pass rush. The linebackers are spectacular and the secondary looks slightly better to me than it was a year ago.
But Charles Johnson is getting older and is a step slower and Greg Hardy is in Dallas. It’s very questionable that the Panthers have anyone on the roster capable of a 10-sack year in 2015. The defense will still be the better half of this team, but it’s not a defense that is going to lead the NFL in sacks like the 2013 one did.
So ... 8-8. Not a terrible record and not a great one – although still a half-game improvement over 2014.
But this time I don’t think it will be enough to win the NFC South or make the playoffs. The fact that 7-8-1 took the Panthers to the playoffs last year as a division winner was a serious anomaly. I believe either Atlanta or New Orleans will go at least 9-7 and end up with the NFC South’s lone playoff spot.
Do you want some ammunition to eviscerate my pick? In the interest of fairness, I will supply it. Sorensen beat me in this very prediction contest last year. He picked the Panthers to go 8-8 in 2014 while I picked them to go 10-6 (we have, oddly enough, reversed those picks exactly for 2015).
Tom won last season, missing the Panthers’ record by only a half-game.
But if you look a little closer, I won our little contest the previous three years in a row from 2011-13. And in the past four years combined, I have missed the Panthers’ record by an average of 1.4 games. Tom has missed it by an average of 2.6 games.
This is the time of the year everyone wants to believe, of course. No one wants to hear a naysayer when your team hasn’t lost a real game in nine months.
But this Carolina team, to me, just isn’t quite there.