Looking for an NFL dark horse? Try saddling up a Panther.


Everyone loves a dark horse and every season it seems several appear out of nowhere to make a strong run at the Super Bowl. But who ever heard of a dark horse who had an 11-5 record the previous season and made the playoffs?

Say hello to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.

It is always dangerous and usually unwise to buck the wiseguys in Vegas who set the yearly Super Bowl odds and over/under number. After all, it’s how they make a living and they don’t make one for long if they get those picks wrong. Yet it seems mind boggling that Vegas has established the 2018 Carolina Panthers as somewhere between 35-1 to 40-1 to reach Super Bowl LIII (that’s 53 to you non-Roman numerologists). Did something happen to Newton they alone know about?

No, it’s just how Vegas sees it. The way I see it is that makes the Panthers this year’s best Super Bowl dark horse. You could take the 100-1 Cincinnati Bengals if you’d like, arguing that their talent demands they’ve got to win a playoff game sometime during Marvin Lewis’ coaching tenure, don’t they? If you’re right you cash in big. Then again, if you’re right I’ll eat my Riddell hat.

Which brings us back to the Panthers.

One can certainly argue Carolina is not the Super Bowl favorite, a position that seems to belong to Tom Brady and the Patriots every year at this time. But 40-1? Bet $1,000 and leave with $40,000 if they leave with the Lombardi Trophy? Where do I sign up?

Thanks to Congress you can bet anywhere these days … but I’ll head to Vegas for the weekend to get down on that number. Why?

Start with the merging of Newton, who is one of the league’s most dynamic quarterbacks when at his best, and new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Turner may have had middling results as an NFL head coach but as a coordinator he has been a magic man. If he can make Newton just slightly more consistent than last year (when he had a subpar 59.1 completion percentage), the Panthers might be ready to growl louder than a year ago, when they lost a wild card playoff game to the Falcons by five points.

Remember the Panthers were ranked seventh in total defense last season, 11th in points allowed and 12th in points scored. In other words, they are both balanced and on the edge of the Top 10 in both categories. Historically, that alone puts you in the Super Bowl hunt. This is especially true when your strongest point is keeping opposing teams out of the end zone.

One should also remember part of Newton’s woes last year centered not so much around him but rather around a less than optimum receiving corps that became even less so after the loss of three-time Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen for the second half of the season. Olsen is back in good health and joins a revamped and improved receiving corps with the addition of Torrey Smith, Jarius Wright and first-round pick D.J. Moore to young Devin Funchess, who seemed to make a breakthrough last year in his third season with 63 catches and eight touchdowns.

Wright was a disappointment in Minnesota but he has the kind of upside someone like Turner is likely to exploit. Smith was underwhelming in 2017, his first and only year in Philadelphia, but he has tremendous speed and Newton has the arm to reach him. That this group is improved seems clear not only because the talent is better but because of the talent coaching that talent in Turner.

The addition of free agent 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Anderson to go along with versatile runner/receiver Christian McCaffrey (80 catches) only adds to Carolina’s weaponry and when you combine that with one of the best defenses in the NFC you look at 40-1 odds and scratch your head even though that defense might struggle early due to the four-game suspension of linebacker Thomas Davis for PEDs.

Although the Panthers may stand alone at the end of the upcoming season if things go right, they don’t stand alone in the dark horse race however. Over in the AFC, it’s a two horse dark horse race between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars. Say what you say?

Weren’t the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game just seven months ago, barely losing to the Patriots when Brady engineered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to snatch victory from the jaws of the Jags?

Yes but Vegas remained unimpressed even though Jacksonville boasted the NFL’s No. 2 defense in both yards and points allowed, fifth ranked scoring offense and sixth ranked total offense. Considering that, what makes them a 22-1 underdog, as they were recently listed?

One guy.

Quarterback Blake Bortles.

Vegas doesn’t trust him. Heck, a lot of Jaguar fans don’t trust him. At times, head coach Doug Marrone looked like he didn’t either. But in the end Bortles did enough to lead his team within 14 minutes of a Super Bowl appearance. Or did he just follow the rest of the pack?

Vegas obviously believes the latter. Hell, they’ve got four NON-PLAYOFF teams from 2017 listed with better odds to win Super Bowl LIII than the Jags. In a game where the quarterback is the most important factor in winning and losing perhaps maybe that makes sense. But what about the fact they have one of the best secondaries in the game even with the loss of slot corner Aaron Colvin, a tremendous pass rush, a powerful running game that takes pressure off Bortles and an improved offensive line with the addition of free agent guard Andrew Norwell from Carolina?

If, like Vegas’ oddsmakers, none of that makes you forget the often shaky Bortles under center than forget the Jags and head due west about 2,500 miles. If you believe quarterback is central to reaching the Super Bowl what’s wrong with the Los Angeles Chargers’ Philip Rivers?

Nothing, but L.A. is still also a heavy underdog (22-1 to 25-1 depending on what sports book you visit) despite finishing 2017 fourth in total offense, first in passing and third in scoring defense. So why are the Chargers 25-1?

Maybe Vegas doesn’t love their receiving corps, which frankly isn’t great, or maybe they dislike their run defense, which was 31st in pro football a year ago. Maybe they think running back Melvin Gordon is a 1,100-yard plow horse and not a show horse?

Who knows? Usually Vegas does but if you’re looking to invest in a longshot with legs you won’t do better than one of these three NFL darkhorses. If, like most of us, you can only afford to take one shot at this though I know who I’m saddling up: Cam Newton, Norv Turner and the Carolina Panthers.


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