CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The season ended with a Super Bowl loss and a super sulking quarterback.
They had a league-best 15-1 regular-season record and stormed through the NFC in the playoffs. They had the league's top scoring offense (31.2 ppg) and the league MVP in quarterback Cam Newton.
They had the league's sixth-ranked defense and the NFL Coach of the Year in Ron Rivera.
One of the only top awards they didn't get was the Lombardi Trophy.
With that, here are my final grades for the season:
Cam Newton didn't have a super Super Bowl, but he had a super season. He was almost the unanimous (48 of 50 votes) choice for the league MVP after leading the NFL in touchdowns with 45 (career-best 35 passing, along with 10 rushing) during the regular season. He rose to elite status and quieted critics that said he couldn't lead. His Super Bowl performance wasn't a reflection of his season or playoff run, primarily because the Denver defense didn't give him a chance, sacking him six times. Newton was pressured on 46.9 percent of his dropbacks, compared to 34.5 percent against all other teams. His teammates didn't help, either, with four dropped passes. But for the year, Newton was spectacular.
The Panthers finished second in rushing during the regular season with 142.6 yards per game. Running back Jonathan Stewart led the way with 989 yards and six touchdowns despite missing the final three regular-season games. The combination of Stewart, Mike Tolbert, Fozzy Whittaker and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne, along with Newton, were as good as any combination in the league.
While this group overachieved after star receiver Kelvin Benjamin suffered a season-ending knee injury in training camp, it could have been better. Ted Ginn Jr. had a career-best 10 touchdown catches during the regular season. He also had 10 dropped passes to tie for second in the NFL. Four dropped passes in Super Bowl 50, three by Jerricho Cotchery, were a factor in Sunday's loss. Rookie Devin Funchess never became the consistent threat coaches wanted after Benjamin was injured. The return of Benjamin in 2016 could elevate this group to elite status, but for now they're still just above average.
Greg Olsen was Newton's MVP. He led the Panthers in receptions (77) and receiving yards (1,104) during the regular season. He had seven touchdown catches and could have had eight more had he not been tackled inside the 5-yard line. Throw in another strong season by Ed Dickson, whose blocking played a big role in keeping Newton clean much of the year, and the tight end position was arguably the best on the team.
If you can get the image of Von Miller and the Denver defense off your mind (six sacks, two leading to fumbles by Newton) you'll remember just how good this group was. Besides the above-mentioned rushing stats, Newton was sacked a career-low 33 times on the season. Pro Football Focus ranked the line second overall behind Dallas. The addition of Michael Oher at left tackle solidified a major weakness in 2014. As general manager Dave Gettleman said, getting a solid group for Newton to work behind was key for the season.
Had this group gotten the performance out of end Kony Ealy all season that he gave in the Super Bowl (three sacks, interception, forced fumble, recovered fumble) this group could have had an A. Defensive tackle Kawann Short had a breakout year with 11 regular-season sacks. He and Star Lotulelei gave the Panthers one of the best tackle combinations in the league. The weakness was defensive end. Charles Johnson missed seven games with a hamstring injury and had only one sack during the regular season. Jared Allen had only two sacks after being acquired in a trade with Chicago. Throw in another pass-rusher opposite Ealy in 2016 and this group will formidable. But it didn't even rank in the top 10 by PFF in 2015.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and outside linebacker Thomas Davis were the best combination in the NFL. They finished first and second on the team in tackles. They each had four regular-season interceptions, the most by linebackers. Kuechly returned two picks for touchdowns in the playoffs. Even when Kuechly was out for three games with a concussion, this group didn't miss a beat with A.J. Klein and rookie Shaq Thompson filling in.
"Thieves Ave." as this group refers to itself helped Carolina lead the league in interceptions (24) during the regular season. Safety Kurt Coleman led the way with seven, and he was arguably the biggest surprise of 2015. Whether you want to label him a shutdown corner or not, Josh Norman gets an A. Quarterbacks had a passer rating of 54.7 against him during the regular season. No corner was better. His four interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, in the first four games set the tone for the season. Had this group stayed healthy -- nickel Bene' Benwikere (leg) and cornerback Charles Tillman (knee) -- throughout the season and playoffs they easily could have gotten an A.
This group improved significantly from 2014, primarily in terms of not giving up touchdowns. Graham Gano ranked second highest by PFF among kickers, converting 29 of 34 regular-season field goals and having a league-best 69 touchbacks on kickoffs. On the down side, he had four field goals blocked during the regular season and his miss in Super Bowl 50 was costly, even though it appeared the Broncos were offside. Ginn ranked 11th in punt returns with an average of 10.3 yards and got the seventh-best grade by PFF. Punter Brad Nortman has had better seasons -- he ranked 18th in the NFL in punting with an average of 45.8 yards a kick -- but he was better than a year ago.