Scott Fowler

Time for Panthers fans to root for Minnesota

Linebacker Luke Kuechly and Carolina edged Seattle in October, 27-23, but the Panthers would probably get an easier playoff matchup Jan. 17th if the hot Seahawks lose at Minnesota Sunday.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly and Carolina edged Seattle in October, 27-23, but the Panthers would probably get an easier playoff matchup Jan. 17th if the hot Seahawks lose at Minnesota Sunday. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Five thoughts on the 15-1 Carolina Panthers and the upcoming playoffs:

1 Think you’ve got a Sunday off, Panthers fans? Think again.

It’s time for you to re-familiarize yourself with Teddy Bridgewater, Adrian Peterson, Captain Munnerlyn and the younger Kalil brother. Because on Sunday afternoon, you should be rooting hard for the Minnesota Vikings to beat Seattle.

If the Seahawks win – and although seeded lower and on the road, they are favored over the Vikings by nearly a touchdown – they come to Charlotte to play Carolina on Jan. 17 at 1:05 p.m.

If the Vikings win, Carolina will instead play Sunday’s Green Bay-Washington winner in that game.

The Panthers have beaten all three of the possible opponents in their first playoff game, but they had the most difficult time with Seattle. To play the NFC team that has been to back-to-back Super Bowls isn’t much of a reward for a 15-1 Carolina team that was the class of the NFL’s regular season.

I think the Panthers and Seattle are actually the two best teams in the NFC right now. But with the way the seedings have shaken out, it is impossible for them to meet in the NFC Championship Game (which will kick off at 6:40 p.m. in Charlotte on Jan. 24 if Carolina can win its first game).

We’re either going to get Cam Newton-Russell Wilson Part 6 on Jan. 17 – and Wilson is 4-1 in those matchups but lost the last one – or we won’t get that game until the 2016 regular season, when the Panthers will travel to Seattle yet again.

2 What Seattle reminds me of is the San Francisco team that came to Charlotte after the 2013 season. The Panthers, remember, had gone to San Francisco and beaten the 49ers in the regular season, just like they did with Seattle this year. But the 49ers, only a No. 5 seed, were extremely hot by then and they whipped No. 2 seed Carolina 23-10 in Charlotte.

I’m not saying the Panthers will lose if their opponent does turn out to be sixth-seeded Seattle. These Panthers are better than that 2013 squad, and I don’t expect they will lose their poise as Carolina did in that playoff game vs. the 49ers. But it’s definitely a tougher road.

The Panthers will host a home playoff game for the third straight year. They have never hosted two in the same season, but will do so if they can win their first playoff game on Jan. 17th at 1:05 p.m.

3 The Panthers’ 15-1 record means a couple of things. This team played the best regular season in Carolina history. And it is the most purely talented team in Carolina history – a franchise-high 10 Pro Bowlers and the likely NFL MVP in Newton all speak to that.

But is it actually the best team? We have to see the playoff games before making that judgment. Certainly, the players from the 2003 Panthers squad that nearly won the Super Bowl against New England might argue that.

Stephen Davis, who ran for 1,444 yards for that 2003 team, was in the Panther’ locker room Sunday after Carolina’s 38-10 victory over Tampa Bay.

“This remind you of the ’03 team?” I asked him.

“This team may be better,” Davis said.

“Really?” I said.

“Nah,” he laughed.

4 The Panthers are getting very thin at cornerback, enough so that they may be starting a player in Robert McClain who wasn’t even on the team until mid-December. Two of the Panthers’ top three cornerbacks (Charles Tillman and Bené Benwikere) have suffered season-ending injuries.

Cornerback is a dangerous place to be short-staffed, and you better believe that either Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers or Kirk Cousins is going to favor McClain’s side of the field on Jan. 17. The Panthers are going to have to compensate by often rolling a safety to McClain’s side, which means Josh Norman will be on his own little island a lot of the time.

The Panthers ended up 11th in total offense this season and sixth in total defense (based on yardage). They were first in the NFL in points scored, at 31.25 per game.

5 Speaking of Norman, let’s review how many high-profile players he has gotten to temporarily lose their minds this season. He showboated on an interception return in training camp and ended up in a fight with Cam Newton. He embedded himself so deeply into Odell Beckham’s head that the NFL later said Beckham should have been thrown out of the game and instead suspended him for the next one. And then Norman helped Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans along the way to two consecutive unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and an ejection on Sunday.

What’s next for Norman? The playoffs and a whole lot of money, certainly. But the Panthers absolutely can’t afford to lose him as an unrestricted free agent. I would pay the man, for sure. But if you absolutely can’t come to terms with Norman, you have to use the franchise tag on him by March 1. No way can the Panthers let a player of Norman’s caliber get away with no compensation.

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