At first glance this headline looks like an oxymoron, however the reality is that winning the Superbowl, and making the playoffs aren't mutually exclusive. One applies to the notion of managing a sixteen game schedule, and surviving the rigors of the regular season injury free, and the other refers to the final sprint, getting into that final race and making the most of it. After spending some time thinking about the 2012 season I can't help but feel like the current Carolina Panthers team are built better for the sprint than the marathon, and I'll look at some reasons why.
There's a chess match around the NFL among two different models of teambuilding in successful franchises. The first are the teams built with amazing strength across their entire 53 man roster, without any glaring weaknesses. The trade-off is that oftentimes these teams don't have the top-end talent at vital positions needed to make waves in the playoffs. It's easy to see the Baltimore Ravens and San Diego Chargers typify these values as both organizations have seen fantastic regular season success over the last decade, but lackluster playoff experience.
The second model is teams with a lot of talent at a few positions, but weak over their entire 53. These teams make waves in the playoffs, but their struggle is lasting the sixteen game schedule to get there. We saw this from the Arizona Cardinals when they made it to the Superbowl a few years ago and from the New York Giants last year who backed into the playoffs through the wildcard.
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Over a 5-6 game stretch I believe the Carolina Panthers are as scary as any team in the NFL based on their talent level at several key positions. That Cardinals team who made the playoffs had an elite QB, two elite WRs and little else. So too the Panthers could make a big push in the playoffs, and possibly to the Superbowl with Cam Newton, Steve Smith, and the rest of their offense.
The issue with a 16 game schedule comes in inevitable injuries, which is why I've stressed so heavily that the Panthers are a ten-win team if they can remain injury free. I'm not speaking specifically of the devastating injuries that put players on IR, but rather the run of the mill turf toes and tweaked hamstrings that knock a player out for 2-3 weeks here or there. As it stands the Carolina Panthers are still woefully lacking in quality depth. They did a great job bolstering their ranks through the draft and free agency, but this is not a team who can win without Steve Smith or Cam Newton in the lineup; last year the Texans managed to go 1-1 with Arian Foster on the sideline, and 3-3 without Matt Schaub-the Panthers simply couldn't be a .500 team without corresponding vital players.
It's not all doom and gloom though. In 2010 the Green Bay Packers limped into the playoffs with a huge number of injuries. They barely made it through their back stretch that included a 7-3 loss against Detroit, and a 10-3 win over Chicago; Aaron Rodgers was barely effective, and the 10-6 Packers looked dead in the water as the regular season came to a close. However, their vital players recovered in time, the Packers got back to early season form, and they went on to win the Superbowl.
To this end the Panthers opening gambit in the 2012 season is arguably the most important the team has ever had. They will be a fresh organization with good legs seeing three divisional opponents in the first month of the season. They must capitalize before the season starts to deliver blows to the team. If the Panthers can win seven or eight of their first ten games they should be able to get enough of a push to nab a wild card, and if they can be healthy at playoff time then watch out.