CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers closed out the regular season with a 38-10 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. They now move on to the NFC playoffs as the No. 1 seed. They will have a bye next weekend.
Reasons to be excited: Nobody can say the Panthers backed into the playoffs, as many did last season when Carolina won the NFC South with a 7-8-1 record. With the NFL's best record, the Panthers (15-1) are two wins at home from reaching the Super Bowl. They are 8-0 at Bank of America Stadium this season and have won 11 straight there, counting a playoff win last year against Arizona. With victories over Washington, Green Bay and Seattle, they have already defeated three of the other five NFC teams in the playoffs. They haven't faced Arizona or Minnesota.
The Panthers should be as healthy on offense as they have been all season, with leading rusher Jonathan Stewart (foot sprain) and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (knee) back following the bye. That Stewart is fresh after a stretch of eight straight games with 20 or more carries could be key. Quarterback Cam Newton is having a career season with a combined 45 touchdowns (35 passing and 10 rushing). His confidence and leadership are at an all-time high. The offense entered Sunday's regular-season finale ranked second in rushing (144.7 ypg.) and second in scoring (30.8 ppg.), and did nothing to move down in either category. The defense entered Sunday ranked fourth in the NFL overall, third in sacks and first in takeaway/giveaway margin at plus-19. These are strengths typically found in teams that make a deep run in the playoffs.
Reasons to be concerned: The secondary began the season driven by the desire for Carolina to win because of it, not in spite of it. For much of the season that was the case. But after the loss of cornerback Bene' Benwikere four weeks ago to a fractured leg, the secondary became more vulnerable to big plays, giving up nine passes of 20 or more yards in the three games prior to the finale. It gave up only nine in four games prior to that. With cornerback Charles Tillman reinjuring his right knee against the Bucs, this group could be one injury from a disaster. That the defense has given up big leads this season also is concerning, most notably against Indianapolis, Green Bay and the New York Giants. The Panthers also have had four field goals blocked this season, so that needs to be shored up. But overall there aren't a lot of holes on this team.
How far they can go: The Panthers are built much like the Seattle Seahawks teams that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl the past two years. They have an effective running game, aided by a quarterback who is a threat to run at any time. They stop the run effectively on defensive, making opponents one-dimensional. They are one of the league's top teams at pressuring the quarterback as well, another Seahawks trait in reaching the title game. The difference this year from past playoff runs is that Newton has taken his game to another level, much like Seattle's Russell Wilson did. That this offense has become explosive, giving Carolina the ability to win a shootout when the defense struggles, is huge. The Panthers didn't demonstrate that capability before this season. Much like Seattle the past two years, Carolina has a legitimate shot to go all the way.