With the Panthers finishing strong in 2012 by winning 5 of their last 6 games, one could say there's optimism for next year. I know a lot of people still question Ron Rivera's ability to turn things around, especially given such slow starts in the last two seasons. One of them was marred by the lockout and lack of adequate off-season preparation time. And, personally, I think this last season was more of a reflection of other teams figuring out our offensive tendencies, paired with some dubious sideline decisions and inability to finish games we should have won. Looking back, it seems to me that the glass is still more "half full" than "half empty" on this team. Going into the season, there were high expectations, and I think those expectations were warranted. Given how many of the games played out, it's clear to me that we were very close to going 9-7 or 10-6 if not for a handful of key plays that cost us games.
So, with that in mind...and, given that we now know who our opponents will be next year (as well as which games we get at home vs. away)...I thought it might be interesting to assess how reasonable it might be to hit the 10-6 mark in 2013. Can Rivera (or a new coaching staff) complete the transformation of this team? Will the players fight hard in the early part of the season to get out to a fast start? And will the new GM be able to identify the team's needs and upgrade certain positions through free agency and the draft to make us even better? I think we all hope so. But, just based on how the Panthers ended the season...as well as how many of their 2013 opponents ended the season...how close might they come to 10-6 next year? Here's some preliminary, game-by-game thoughts on that...
Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay - Let's assume, for argument's sake, that any 10-6 team will need to go at least 3-3 in its division games to reach that mark. The Panthers already managed that feat this past season (2-0 vs. NO, 1-1 vs. ATL, and 0-2 vs. TB). We nearly swept Atlanta, and even the second Tampa game was much closer. So, the matchups seem to be working in our favor. However, I don't think we should count on necessarily improving our division record next year. So, as a conservative estimate, I'm going to assume we can once again go 3-3. And, in terms of just our home games, I'll assume we go 2-1 against these division rivals. Verdict: 2 wins
Saint Louis - The Rams are a team on the rise. Still, I think they may be one more season removed from truly turning the corner. It'd be a hard fought contest between the 2012 Rams and Panthers. Hopefully, the 2013 Panthers can edge them. Since we play them here in Charlotte, I'll give the slight edge to Carolina. Verdict: 1 win
Seattle - Another team on the rise. The Seahawks are a much improved team and they're cresting at just the right time as they enter the playoffs. But we nearly beat Seattle this year. And, as good as the Seahawks have become, there'll be plenty of film to study on Russell Wilson. He might suffer his own sophomore slump. And this could be a revenge game for us, as it's a game that "got away" last year. Playing at home, I don't think the Panthers will sleep on this one. And, because it's a west coast team having to visit an east coast team, the Seahawks just might. Verdict: 1 win
New York Giants - Eli Manning and company are starting to come apart at the seams a little bit. They got beat up this past year, mostly in their own division. But they handled us easily in our 2012 meeting. So easily, in fact, that it likely left a bad taste in the mouth of our defense. I think this is another potential "revenge" game. It takes place on our homefield. The Giants haven't righted their ship just yet. Verdict: 1 win
New England - I don't believe the Panthers will be improved enough to deal with the Patriots. Even in our own backyard, Tom Brady is still Tom Brady. And the Patriots have a lot of really talented playmakers. I suspect it'll be too much for us to handle. Verdict: 1 loss
New York Jets - Another team from the big city that's reeling right now. Their QB situation is still muddied. They've chosen to stick with Rex Ryan. I just don't see them patching enough holes to be much improved next year. We also get them at our house. Provided we don't lose focus, this should be a no-brainer. Verdict: 1 win
Atlanta, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay - As stated earlier, I think we need to go at least 3-3 in our division to realistically reach 10-6. Given how we played last year, I don't think that's an unattainable goal. If we get to 2-1 in our home games against our division rivals, we only need to go 1-2 on the road to stay on pace. Verdict: 1 win
Arizona - A team in flux. If Andy Reid lands with the Cardinals and reunites with Kevin Kolb, it's possible they'll start improving. But I don't think it'll be right away. They're arguably the weakest team in a strong division. If the Panthers improve in enough areas of need during the off-season and come out focused on changing their fortunes, I just don't see Arizona standing in their way. Verdict: 1 win
San Francisco - The Niners weren't quite as dominant this year, but they piled up an impressive record anyway. It'll be interesting to see if they stick with Kaepernick. I expect they do. I'm not sure if he'll have a sophomore slump or if the Panthers will be able to take advantage of him defensively. In general, I'd say we're certainly not favored in this game. It's also a west coast road trip. It all depends on when we play them, but we probably won't be at our best. Verdict: 1 loss
Minnesota - Another team that made some noise this year. They nearly missed the playoffs, but they're a team that's improving. If not for a competitive division, they might have been even better this year. I don't expect they'll suffer any setbacks. So, that pace for improvement likely stays on track. And, if so, I doubt we handle this game very well. We might surprise them. But, if so, I'd be the one surprised. Verdict: 1 loss
Buffalo - Another team that hit the reset button. New coaching staff. New direction. Already in disarray. It's unclear how quickly they'd be able to change their fortune next year. I doubt they'll be able to keep pace with the Panthers in that regard. Granted, it's a road game...which could prove more difficult if it takes place later in the year. Bottom line, however, I just don't think the Bills will have enough to hang with us. Verdict: 1 win
Miami - This one is kind of a toss-up game. The Dolphins can be hot or cold. So, it'll depend on our game preparation and how much each team improves itself this off-season. Tannebaum might take a step back in his sophomore year. And the Fins still have a lot of problems. Maybe too many. I think we take them. Verdict: 1 win
Final Analysis: 10-6
Now, normally, when I do this kind of crystal ball divination for myself, so far removed from each team's final roster, I lay down a bunch of caveats and what if's. There's certainly plenty of those to be offered this go-around, too. But, in general, if you're optimistic about this team, I think the projections I've laid out above are reasonable. It's entirely possible that we'll lose a game we shouldn't. And, we'll probably win a game we shouldn't. That's often how it goes in the NFL. But, if so, the extra win and loss is just going to wash each other out. Games we might win which I marked as losses include another victory against a division rival or maybe Minnesota. And, games which we could easily lose include another division opponent or one of the games against Seattle, Saint Louis, or the Giants.
All in all, though, I really think we could go 10-6. Right now, we know that 10 of our games will be against sub-.500 teams. And, of the other 6 teams with records above .500, we've got a grudge against a couple of them already (i.e., Atlanta and Seattle). So, it'll all hinge on the players buying into Rivera's program, how much we play with intensity and focus by closing out the type of games we should have won this year, as well as how much we continue to improve ourselves via the draft, free agency, and development of our current players. Can the 2013 Panthers go 10-6? Realistically...and even conservatively...I'd say yes. There'll be some tough games. And there'll always be some disappointing games. But, I think the Panthers are trending upward and they should be primed to make a run for their coach in 2013. This time, I think it'll be more than a one-game improvement. We could realistically reach the playoffs.
But that's just my two cents,