- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 23
Biggest surprise: "Riverboat Ron." Not often does a coach admit he needs to change, but Ron Rivera did after a 24-23 loss to Buffalo dropped Carolina to 0-2. He admitted he should have gone for it on fourth-and-1 with 1:42 remaining and leading by three. He admitted he needed to show more confidence in his offense to make a yard and his defense to make stops. He went from one of the league's most conservative fourth-down coaches to one of the most aggressive, and added a nickname. He successfully went for it twice on the opening drive against Minnesota to start an eight-game winning streak. He went for it late on fourth-and-10 deep in his own territory to set up the winning touchdown against Miami. Carolina finished the regular season 10-of-13 on fourth-down attempts. Ironically, it was a failed attempt in the playoff game against San Francisco that led to the Panthers' 23-10 loss.
Biggest disappointment: The inability to win a home playoff game once again, which came in large part because of the team's late-season inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line in Sunday's playoff loss, and came away with no touchdowns. Four times they had an opportunity to score from the 1 and failed. Had they converted even one, it would have been a one-score game at the end, leaving open the possibility for a comeback. I'm still wondering why 6-foot-5 quarterback Cam Newton didn't get the call on third down and less than 2 feet. You would think he could have jumped up and thrust the ball over the goal line.
Biggest need: If Newton is to have success as the team's franchise quarterback he needs to have more weapons. Outside of the aging-but-still-effective Steve Smith, and occasional moments from Ted Ginn Jr., he has none at this position. Brandon LaFell did little over the final three games to prove he should be re-signed as the team's No. 2 receiver. He could have been selected for the season's biggest disappointment. Don't be surprised to see the team address this position in free agency and the draft, which is heavy with receiver talent. It was obvious in the playoff loss against San Francisco that a major difference between Newton and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was talent at receiver.
Team MVP: This is a tough one. Part of me says Greg Hardy, whose team-leading 15 sacks and 38 quarterback pressures were key to what the team does on defense. Not to mention he played every position along the defensive front at some point. But I have to go with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. He led the league's second-ranked defense in tackles with 176. He is the brains and leader of this unit. His ability to cover some of the league's top tight ends as well as set the tone for stopping the run was invaluable. His 24 tackles in a 17-13 victory against New Orleans in Week 16 helped keep the Panthers close enough to pull off a win that helped them clinch the NFC South title.