This season in Carolina has been marked by two major stories on the field. Those are uncertainty at quarterback and injuries across the defense. They haven’t exactly been the recipe for success that interim head coach Steve Wilks might have hoped for in his second chance to lead an NFL team.
The Carolina Panthers have shown limited promise in spite of that sub-optimal recipe, however. Wilks has kept the guys disciplined and focused and in turn they have shown up in divisional games and against the Baltimore Ravens. The Panthers have proved that they have the capacity to play with the big boys in the league. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but they might even be just some injury luck and a quarterback away from relevancy. With that in mind, here are the three things I am watching for this week:
Sam Darnold vs the Tank
Another quarterback, another week for the Panthers. It’s a tale as old as 2018 and one that we are quite tired of hearing. Darnold is a known commodity at this point, in that it is known that he provides chaos on the field. Long stretches of competence and sensible decisions are invariably interrupted by two to three throws a game that crater his team’s chances of winning.
This will be the first Darnold game we see in a Ben McAdoo offense and the first game action that Darnold has seen all season following an early ankle injury landed him on injured reserve. The story to watch for here isn’t “will Darnold restore the Panthers chances in the NFC South” so much as it is “will Darnold provide enough novelty to tip the balance against a couple of bad teams.”
The last seven weeks of this season are going to be long ones if the Panthers embark on another long losing streak, but they’ll risk being seasons longer if a few wins knock them out of contention for a top quarterback in the 2023 draft. Darnold, more than anybody else in Charlotte, has the potential to tip the balance between those two destinies.
The involuntary youth movement
The Panthers defense has been banged up all season, with multiple starters missing multiple games. It has been a long running game of musical stretchers that nobody is happy about. This week they will be missing Myles Hartsfield (ankle), Cory Littleton (ankle), and Matt Ioannidis (calf).
That puts free agent pick up CB TJ Carrie, Brandon Smith, and Marquan McCall in line for bigger than expected rolls this week. Carrie is a nine-year veteran who will be asked to provide some stability to a secondary missing its jack-of-all trades player, while McCall and Smith are rookies who have already impressed in limited time.
This is one of those games where the rookies will be tested hard and we fans get to form iron clad and mildly supported opinions about their potential for next year and beyond.
Will Vegas settle down?
Last week, Draftkings Sportsbook had the Panthers as 13-point underdogs to the Baltimore Ravens. That’s a huge spread. While the Panthers ultimately lost by 10 points, they were within a field goal until the game’s final minutes.
Carolina has been nearly impossible to predict this season and the Denver Broncos have been little better. This week saw a one-point spread favoring the visiting Broncos because, well, why not? Russell Wilson was once a good quarterback, which is more than you can say for the Panthers.
After this week, the Panthers will have played some of the best and worst teams in the NFL. They will have games against the Seahawks, Steelers, Lions, Bucs, and Saints left. A mixed bag of mixed bags, as it were. Where fans see potential to ruin the draft, Vegas has no idea what to see and that means chaos for the local betting market.
A strong performance here could give the Panthers a favorable reputation entering the home stretch of their season, while a fight in the mud will likely yield more coin toss spreads.