In the many years I have written this preseason prediction column, I have never picked the Carolina Panthers to win the Super Bowl.
That changes today.
I believe the Panthers will finally scale the mountain, winning the 51st Super Bowl on Feb. 5, 2017 in Houston.
There will be losses along the way. There will be plenty of adversity to overcome. There always is.
In the regular season, I am picking the Panthers to go 11-5 – a modest record compared with their 15-1 mark of a year ago. These Panthers have the talent and desire inherent in all great teams, and in the playoffs they will have just enough to win the first Super Bowl in franchise history.
The biggest two reasons, of course, are quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly. Rare is the NFL team that has two stars like that who are both in their primes and both so dedicated to their craft. With the exception of special-teams plays, either No. 1 or No. 59 is always on the field, and that means there is always hope for Carolina.
In the NFL, though, you need at least a dozen players who are difference-makers at their positions, and the Panthers also have that sort of depth. They had 10 Pro Bowlers last season, and nine of them return (cornerback Josh Norman being the only exception). The Panthers led the NFL in total points last season and now have Kelvin Benjamin back at wide receiver, as well as a rapidly emerging Devin Funchess.
The biggest current question mark is the secondary, where the Panthers let Norman walk and will put three rookie cornerbacks in key roles. There will be some growing pains there. Some quarterback somewhere along the line will throw for 300 yards.
I think the Panthers can survive that, though. What they can’t survive – and what would quickly derail my Super Bowl prediction – would be a serious injury to Newton or Kuechly. The team could win some games without either one of them, yes – Carolina has done that several times – but I don’t think the Panthers could win the biggest game without both of them playing at a high level. The loss of tight end Greg Olsen would also be devastating. Without him on the field, Newton sometimes can look lost.
The reason I am picking Carolina to lose five regular-season games is primarily because of a nasty schedule. Opening at Denver is no fun at all and a likely loss. Playing three West Coast road games in a month is very difficult. Carolina will win the NFC South for the fourth season in a row, but there will be no flirting with an undefeated record this time around.
What the Panthers will do, though, is play their best when it counts the most. The Super Bowl was a difficult lesson for the Panthers, who simply got outplayed by a Denver defense that overwhelmed Carolina’s offensive line and made Newton look very average.
So who will the Panthers play in the 51st Super Bowl in February? I think it will be New England. Yes, that’s right – the very same Patriots franchise that beat Carolina in the 38th Super Bowl.
Thirteen years later, Tom Brady will still be the Patriots quarterback. The biggest game once again will be played in the very same city where Brady and the Patriots edged Carolina 32-29 in early 2004.
The result will be different though. This time, when the confetti is streaming down, the Panthers won’t be the ones getting ushered off the field.
This time, finally, the Panthers are going to win the Super Bowl.