Usually, you would think a 6-10 team would have a long way to go before competing for a divisional title in arguably the league’s toughest division.
However, the Panthers have everything going for them. They made improvements to an offensive line that was already among the best in the NFL by drafting guard Amini Silatolu. Behind this great offensive line is a stable of three running backs that could start for about 28 other teams in the league. Their veteran receiver has found new life and is playing at a Pro Bowl-level, and their defense is getting back a lot of pieces, particularly at the linebacker position.
Most importantly, they have a quarterback that shattered rookie passing records last year. With a full offseason under his belt, his growth from year one to year two should make him an even more polished player – a scary proposition for AFC South defenses.
Still, this was a six-win team last year. While an improvement is expected, can they topple the Saints and Falcons and grab this division by the jugular?
While the Panthers continue to build and accumulate young talent, the once-formidable Saints and Falcons find themselves at a crossroads just months after clinching playoff appearances.
The Saints’ issues this offseason go beyond what happens on the field. Their head coach and defensive captain have been sidelined for the entirety of the 2012 season. GM Mickey Loomis is under investigation for allegedly taping opponet’s with a voice recorder during games.
To top it off, they have inexplicably refused to give Drew Brees the kind of money he wants. During a time when the Saints need Brees more than ever, both as a leader and as a coach on the field, Brees appears to be headed for a holdout, and it is hard to blame him for doing so.
Meanwhile, the Falcons are a quietly aging team on both sides of the ball. Their offensive line has been exposed, and their star runner is becoming less effective as each year passes after taking on such a heavy workload during his initial seasons in Atlanta.
John Abraham, their top pass rusher, is 34 years old and cannot be counted on to play on every down. They also lost their top linebacker in Curtis Lofton in free agency to the rival Saints.
The Buccaneers will be tied up with changing the perception of their franchise than competing for divisional titles in Greg Schiano’s first season at the helm.
The Panthers, who lost a lot of close games last year and could have easily won up to 10 games, would likely be the favorites if they were to play either of these teams right now, especially if Drew Brees is still not under contract.
That is not to say the Panthers do not have lingering issues; defensive tackle and cornerback remain question marks on a defense that allowed a lot of big plays last season.
Nonetheless, when you add up all of the factors, not only do the Panthers have a great chance of winning the division; they should be favorites.