Just when you thought it was over for good, they pull you right back in. The Jets are only 1 game out of the sixth wild card spot, so technically there are still playoff aspirations on the line. The Jets will kick off their six game post-bye week slate as they host the 7-3 Carolina Panthers. To preview the game, I asked Bradley Smith of Cat Scratch Reader five questions on the Panthers.
1. The Panthers have already beaten their win total from last year. What has most allowed that to happen? Is it simply a return to normal (as we saw in 2015) for a talented group, or have there been key additions spurring the turnaround?
The biggest difference is Cam Newton is healthy again. He suffered a near concussion in the season opener, an actual concussion mid-season, and a shoulder injury late in the year that hampered his ability to lead the offense. Despite struggling for the first few weeks recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, the difference between 2016 Cam and 2017 Cam has been huge for the Panthers. Adding Christian McCaffrey to the mix certainly helped as well. This team looks a lot like the 2015 team, but they do need a deep threat to keep defenses honest like they had in 2015 with Ted Ginn. They've been trying a couple of players out to fill that role (Kaelin Clay, Damiere Byrd, Curtis Samuel before he got hurt), and if they can find a Ginn replacement they'll be nearly unstoppable, much like the 2015 team that made it to the Super Bowl.
2. The Carolina passing game has seen a lot of change, with the addition of Christian McCaffrey and then the in-season trade of Kelvin Benjamin. How do Cam Newton and this unit like to operate, and who are the most dangerous weapons in the passing attack?
The Panthers are the most successful when they 'let Cam be Cam'. If they allow him to call his own number on QB draw plays and let him bootleg off play-action to find receivers downfield (or take off and get yards on his own if no one is open), the passing attack can be very efficient. The rushing attack also has to work for Newton to shine, as preventing the defense from stacking the box opens things up for Newton more. The most dangerous weapons not named Cam Newton are Christian McCaffrey, Greg Olsen (who will be returning from a broken foot this week) and Devin Funchess. If Newton can find those guys open, the Panthers offense will find success.
3. How has the Panthers' rookie class contributed to the team's success this year, and how does their long-term promise look?
The only rookie who has really contributed is McCaffrey. Curtis Samuel has made a few plays but he's been injured off and on throughout the year. We have three rookies on injured reserve (Samuel, Corn Elder and Daeshon Hall), and Taylor Moton (OT) hasn't played much except for being the extra lineman in the jumbo package. McCaffrey has been essential to the Panthers' resurgence this year, but none of the other rookies have been able to make an impact. As far as the future, I think McCaffrey has the chance to be a frequent Pro-Bowler, but it's too early to tell with any of the other rookies in our 2017 class.
4. What is a specific weakness the Panthers have on each side of the ball that has been most consistently exploited this year?
On offense, the run game has been suspect. They've picked things up over the last two weeks, but a lot of fans are still skeptical because those two games were against the Falcons, who are bad against the run this year, and the Dolphins, who basically quit on Monday Night Football in Week 10. The offensive line has been the biggest issue with the Panthers' lack of rushing ability, as they've failed to provide the running backs any room to work with at the line of scrimmage. It's difficult to gain yards in the NFL when you have a defender in your face as soon as you get to the LOS, which has been the harsh reality for the Panthers' backs for most of this season.
On defense, the secondary is our biggest weakness. We have James Bradberry at CB and Kurt Coleman at S, who are both good players, but the rest of our secondary is composed of a platoon of Daryl Worley and Kevon Seymour at CB, and the 98-year old Mike Adams at S. Our secondary depth is also suspect, as our best backup is Jairus Byrd. Our front seven is one of the best in the game, but if you can hold off the pass rush long enough, you can expose our secondary and find success.
5. It's very crowded at the top of the NFC. How can the Panthers emerge from that pack, and how far are they capable of going?
The Panthers can emerge from the pack by taking care of business over the next few weeks. They have games against the Saints and Vikings coming up that will go a long way into deciding where they fit into the playoff picture. As far as how far are they capable of going, this team could win it all if they can get all their key guys back on the field. They're 7-3 and have been without Pro Bowlers Ryan Kalil and Greg Olsen for the last 8 weeks, so once those guys are back to solidify the center and tight end positions this team can be scary good. We've seen what they're capable of over the last few weeks - beating Atlanta and dominating Miami - and if they can bring that team onto the field every week there are few opponents who can stop them.