On the eve of our season opener versus the Jacksonville Jaguars I took a long hard look at the Panthers roster, specifically the wide receivers, and thought 'I'd better strap myself in, this could be a long season'. Then I found hope.
It came in the shape of a favorable schedule. First up came the Jags, who somehow avoided finishing bottom of the AFC South last season despite their best efforts, finishing with a miserly 3-13 record. Then came fellow AFC South outfit the Houston Texans, who finished second with a winning record of 9-7. A reasonably good record until you realize it has been padded out with four wins from the two teams worse than them in their division, and early season wins over the Redskins and Raiders. Then came the home NFC South clash with the Saints before travelling to Tampa for a showdown with the uninspiring, rookie led, Bucs. For all the grief we had been receiving from the press and the experts alike, 4-0 looked a realistic possibility. Low and behold - it still does.
Despite my renowned hope, the Panthers offense, with all its number 3 & 4 receivers, did nothing to boost my confidence. Cam Newton managed a completion rate of just over 50% with dropped catches once again plaguing our attack. However, the one thing you can always rely on with our Panthers is the defense. Step up Josh Norman. His pick six was enough to see off Bortles and his boys. 1-0.
Think Texans and you think JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Brian Cushing etc. But our once maligned offensive line had looked much better in the opener and with Arian Foster missing, a lack of receiver depth and a pair of quarterbacks who should both be back-ups there was every reason to expect a victory on the road. Cam donned his cape and Superman flipped into the end-zone and stole the show and the W. 2-0.
Hell, by now things had even started to go our way. Drew Brees was likely to miss his first game through injury since junior high and people were fearing the Saints season was over before September had even ended. Luke McCown put in a good shift to his credit, but it was Norman once more who came up trumps with the late, great interception to end the game, and possibly Sean Payton's 10 year tenure in New Orleans. 3-0.
So we come to today and not only is 4-0 a realistic possibility, we enter Sundays game with the Bucs probably expecting a victory. We rank higher on both sides of the ball according the the stats of NFL.com and our experienced D and signal caller gives us the advantage over Tampa's rookie. A rookie who came up against the man he beat to the Number 1 overall pick in week one and lost badly. It wil be by no means easy in Florida but we can head there with confidence.
With the 4-0 now a realistic possibility I looked into Cams previous seasons and a pattern began to emerge. Well actually two did. Firstly, in each of our last three season the Panthers have put together winning streaks of four games or more, including the four which sent us to the play-offs last year, and the franchise record 8 wins in 2013. Even in his rookie year in 2011, Cam led us to four wins with a solitary defeat to the Falcons piercing the middle. This shows me that this team has been in this position before, they know what to do, and they know how to do it.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I noticed that we always seems to get stronger as the season progresses. The general template of our season is a average, poor, or downright awful start, followed by a renaissance period. Let's break it down;
2014 Week 13:3-8-1 but by Week 17: 7-8-1
2013 Week 5: 1-3 and by Week 17: 12-4
2012 Week 11: 2-8 and by Week 17: 7-9
2011 Week 11: 2-8 by Week 17: 6-10
So what happens if we actually start the season well? I looked deeper into our schedule and the next four games after the Bucs game don't look pretty on paper. A trip to Seatlle is followed by hosting Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Green Bay. Though if we win versus Tampa we come back after the bye week fresh and fuelled with confidence and with revenge on our minds. These fixtures look much more enjoyable at the end of week three than they did when I first looked on the eve of week 1. With the exception of Green Bay none of them has set the league alight and our confidence, belief and momentum could be hugely important. If we come out of that streak with 5 or 6 wins in the season the excitement can really build then.
These games are followed by a run of highly winnable games versus the Titans, Redskins, Cowboys, Saints, Giants and the Bucs. At this point the December double-header with the Falcons could be the two games that stand between us and a 3-peat. After Kelvin Benjamin was announced to miss the season I admit I didn't feel all too hopeful, but I know better than to write off this team. They wear the chip on their shoulder with pride, and revel in proving people wrong. Is a 10 or 11 win season out of the question? Certainly not. Just one more thing, the last time we opened a season 3-0? Yeah, you know it - Super Bowl.
You don't need a plethora of excellent receiving talent when you have the heart of a Panther.
Posted by Dan Rawlinson
C3 UK Correspondent: