Through three weeks of the NFL season, the Carolina Panthers became the surprise darling of the NFL with a 3-0 record including a win over the New Orleans Saints. They beat a bad Jets team, an injury-riddled Saints team, and the Texans who are, well, let's just call it what it is - a mess.
Getting out to the hot start may have fooled the fan base which created some unrealistic expectations. The Panthers have dropped two straight and now, all of a sudden, the world is coming to an end according to some folks. To be brutally honest, it's more so about Carolina falling back down to earth after having some very favorable matchups in the month of September.
In the team's two losses, Sam Darnold has thrown five interceptions, and the offense at times has been lulled to sleep. You can attribute some of that to the absence of Christian McCaffrey who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury. As I said a couple of weeks ago, this team is not built to last without McCaffrey for an extended period of time. They are currently 0-2 without him but even if he were to miss this Sunday, I think the Panthers can manage. They need him healthy for the long haul, especially once the schedule kicks up a notch in difficulty here in a handful of weeks.
Even with Darnold's struggles and a poor offensive line, can the Panthers still be a playoff contender?
In my opinion, yes. 100%. Anytime you have an elite defense, you have a chance to make some noise. Not to mention, that unit is only going to get better in the coming weeks. Linebacker Shaq Thompson is nursing a foot injury and should return relatively soon while newly acquired CB Stephon Gilmore will be available for the first time next week against the Giants. If and when the Panthers' offense comes around, this team will be more than just a playoff contender, they could be a team that even wins a game or two in the postseason.
To clinch a spot in the playoffs, I'm going to say Carolina will need to reach the ten win mark at minimum. Eleven wins should certainly get them in. Are there seven wins still left on the schedule? I think so. There's a strong possibility that the Panthers beat the Giants next week, sweep the two-game season series with Atlanta, and beat the Football Team at home. That alone gets you four wins, only needing three to get to ten wins.
What Carolina can't afford to overcome is having more games end the way this past Sunday's game did against the Eagles. When they have a lead in the fourth quarter, they have to be able to put the game away. Too many losses like that will have you on the outside looking in.
Most importantly, the Panthers have to stay healthy. The big concern is with the offensive line. Could it get to a point where Sam Darnold takes too much of a beating and has to miss extended time? If that happens, all hope for the playoffs will come to an end. P.J. Walker is a decent backup quarterback but I don't view him as a top 15-16 backup in the NFL and one that you can trust to win enough games to get you to the postseason.
At the end of the day, very few expected this team to make a push for the playoffs in 2021. This year is setting the foundation for what is to come. Carolina has one of the youngest rosters in the league, so winning will come as this group gains experience. Let's not forget that this is Matt Rhule's 2nd year on the job and Sam Darnold's first as QB1 of the Panthers. And it's not like the coaching staff in New York really put much of an effort into developing Darnold. The pieces are in place (for the most part) to be a Super Bowl contending team two to three years down the road. Right now, it's about tasting success while learning to handle the ups and downs of a long season.
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