It used to be one of the NFL’s more bizarre statistics since divisional realignment took place in 2002, with no team able to successfully win back to back NFC South divisional titles since its formation, that is until the Panthers were able to end that run (or lack thereof) by finishing first in both 2013 and 2014. It was quite a turnaround for the team from the disastrous 2-14 season in 2010 that led them to drafting quarterback Cam Newton first overall and appointing Ron Rivera, now in his 5th season at the helm in 2015, and aiming for a third straight NFC South title and post-season appearance. And as we know, they ended up going so much further than that. Record: 15-1, 1st in NFC South, 30th overall draft pick. The Panthers believed in themselves from the start, but a lot of general NFL fans and media didn’t as the regular season began. DeAngelo Williams was gone, but more significantly a season ending injury to star 2nd year receiver Kelvin Benjamin left what seemed on paper a relatively weak receiving core for Newton to work with. Carolina were certainly helped by having what turned out to be not the most difficult of schedules, being paired with both the AFC South and NFC East, which turned out to be arguably the poorest division in each conference this year. Still, the fourteen game undefeated run that they embarked on was a remarkable achievement. Throughout that victorious stretch of games, they constantly swatted away chatter that they couldn’t keep it going and it’ll all unravel soon, which of course never occurred. They really started to show they were for real following their bye week and facing their recent rival the Seahawks on their turf in Seattle. Trailing 23-14 in the 4th quarter, Newton took control after a rough outing for most of the day to lead two consecutive TD drives to secure a clutch win. There were other close calls, in particularly against the Colts, in which the Panthers couldn’t convert against a struggling opponent, and allowed them to take the game to overtime. The offense looked fantastic against the Packers, taking a massive 37-6 lead, but showed some vulnerability in allowing Green Bay back into the contest, before emerging with a closer that it should have been 37-29 win. The Giants also pushed them close in a high-scoring affair that is remembered for the Beckham-Norman unpleasantness, overshadowing a tight 38-35 narrow win for Carolina. The Falcons finally removed the undefeated label in week 16, with a few injuries taking their toll on the lack of depth at certain positions. Entering the playoffs as the number one seed in the NFC, the Panthers hit top form after their first round bye, flying out to a 31-0 lead in their rematch with Seattle. The comeback by the Seahawks had Panthers fans sweating more than they should have had to, but held on. That was followed by a bit of a let-down for the neutrals, as the Cardinals failed to do their part in what might have otherwise been a classic NFC Championship game. Not the Panthers fault, they looked superb again in a 49-15 blowout win. The ease with which they blew away their previous two playoff opponents resulted in entering the Super Bowl as favourites in most people’s eyes, but even though faced with a great Broncos defense, they still had plenty opportunities that they failed to take that will haunt them. The 24-10 loss hurts, but it was a sensational, historic season for the franchise, and with Newton leading the team, they’ll have other chances to take that last step. Offense: This is Cam Newton’s team. There’s no doubt that he is unique in our league, and raised the offense as a whole with his presence, playmaking ability, diverse skill set and brash, unyielding confidence. Despite how things finished in the big game, there’s little question that he was the only choice for league MVP in 2015, at times dragging his team over the winning line during their 14 game run. He accounted for 45 touchdowns in the regular season, throwing for 35 and running for a further 10. He is already breaking career records of the likes of Steve Young, at the age of just 26. Some of the records he will hold by the time his career is over could be tough to ever break. His accuracy still isn’t going to challenge the top pocket passers, failing to break the 60% mark for a third season out of the last four, but his game is based around so much more than that. Getting Benjamin back next season is going to be an exciting prospect. In his absence, tight end Greg Olson continues to be a star at the position of which there are few currently throughout the NFL. The surprise contributor was a resurgent Ted Ginn who became a sensational deep threat, big play target. You still have to deal with frustrating drops, but all it takes is a couple plays a game to make a difference in the outcome, and the constant threat itself opens space for others. His 44 receptions went for a team-leading 739 yards at nearly 17 yards per catch and 10 touchdowns. They weren’t the first team to allow a bunch of sacks and QB hits to the Broncos this season, but there’s no doubt that the offensive line needs to be upgraded. There’s talent on the interior, with Trai Turner emerging as one of the top guards in the country, and Ryan Kalil continuing his similar status at center. It’s on the edges where help his needed, and could well be where their 30th overall first draft selection is used if the right player is available. Defense: Quality investment in young talent via the draft has seen the Panthers defense develop into one of the best in the NFL. All that ability and potential came together in 2015, with the unit ranking 6th in yards allowed, 6th in points allowed and leading the league with 24 interceptions. A few years ago the team committed each of their first two draft picks on defensive tackles and it’s paid off with both Star Lotuleilei and Kawann Short one of the best tandems at the position. Short in particularly came on this season with a breakout year, with 11 sacks in the regular season and 2 more in the post-season, fantastic numbers from an interior lineman. In such a deeply talented DT class this year, some teams may copy that formula and double up at the position in the draft themselves. The team loses both Charles Johnson and Jared Allen at defensive end, but have to be encouraged by the Super Bowl showing of former 2nd round pick Kony Ealy, another high investment who had 5 sacks and 3 force fumbles in the regular season, but against the Broncos had an MVP-type game with 3 sacks, an interception and a force fumble. Luke Kuechly continues to be a monster in the middle and the star of the team; there’s no limit to the superlatives his play deserves. Thomas Davis beside him is playing as well as any time in his career, and earned a certain amount of legendary status for the toughness of playing with a broken arm in the big game. The fantastic playmakers at each level of the defense continue with the secondary as well. Former 5th round corner Josh Norman at the age of 28 proceeded to more-or-less shut down each opponent’s number one receiver week in and week out. Sure he likes to talk, and wasn’t blameless in his tangle with Odell Beckham, but he backs it up with great play. He hasn’t turned that into a long-term deal as yet, and will instead play under the franchise tag next season. It could pay off well if he proves it wasn’t a one-off year. Kurt Coleman was a huge difference maker himself at safety, piling up 119 tackles and 9 interceptions over 18 games. Rookie Class: Carolina came away with a small haul of actual draft picks from the 2015 class, with just five names added to the roster over the 7 rounds, in part due to a couple of trades up in order to target a couple players they wanted. Their first round selection was to take the versatile Shaq Thompson from Washington to add to their already talented linebacker group. He offers plenty upside and ability to line up at multiple spots, and made a solid contribution in year 1 including 50 tackles during the regular season. They gave up some picks to move up and grab Devin Funchess out of Michigan next, considered a “tweener” wide receiver / tight end prospect, who certainly will provide additional size opposite Benjamin when he’s back. Funchess didn’t see a lot of action early, but saw his targets increase as the season went on, finishing strongly against the Bucs in week 17 with 7 catches for 120 yards and a TD. 4th round offensive tackle Daryl Williams of Oklahoma also saw the Panthers trade up to acquire his services, and earned time on special teams units and as an additional blocker in short yardage situations. Carolina’s final two picks came in round 5, and while linebacker David Mayo didn’t see many snaps his first year, Cameron Artis-Payne got some opportunities at running back while Stewart needed a little time off, averaging 4.1 yards per carry on his 41 carries. Overall: It’s difficult not to come away gutted if you’re the Panthers or their fans, but hopefully with time they will look back on this season as it was – the best in franchise history so far. Most of the team will stay in place, and could even get better with number one receiver Kelvin Benjamin set to return. For a unit looked at as not a strength, the prospect of Benjamin, Funchess, Ginn and Olson looks pretty darn good, with Newton continuing his one of a kind brand of playmaking. They could use some help opposite Josh Norman at corner, and may need to re-stock the pass rushing unit, but are returning a defense packed with elite talent on that side of the ball as well. The quality is there to not just repeat again as NFC South champs, but take another shot at the title that eluded them this season.
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