NFL Nation: Bank of America Stadium

NFC schedule analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Breakdown: The Panthers have the NFL’s hardest schedule, with opponents combining for a .543 winning percentage in 2012. Six games are against opponents that went to the playoffs last season. But there’s plenty of good news that comes along with Carolina’s schedule. The Panthers will open at home against Seattle. That will mark the first time the Panthers will open at Bank of America Stadium since 2009. Plus, the Panthers, who haven’t had a winning season since 2008, will get some pretty good national exposure. They’ll appear in two prime-time games. They’ll play at Tampa Bay in a Thursday night game on Oct. 24 and they’ll host the New England Patriots on Nov. 18. The New England contest will mark the first "Monday Night Football" game from Bank of America Stadium since 2008. The way I see it, the first seven games will go a long way in setting the tone for Carolina's season. The Panthers, who have started off 2-8 in each of coach Ron Rivera's first two seasons, have to start fast because their schedule becomes much more difficult over the final nine games.

Complaint department: The bye for Carolina is coming in Week 4. That’s way too early because the Panthers will be only a month removed from training camp. The league also didn’t do the Panthers any favors by giving them back-to-back road trips to Arizona and Minnesota in the two weeks following the bye. But the biggest challenge of all may be the end of the schedule. Four of Carolina’s final five games will be against NFC South foes.

Quick turnaround: The biggest quirk on Carolina’s schedule might be the timing of the two New Orleans games. The Panthers will play in New Orleans on Dec. 8. Exactly two weeks later, the Saints will come to Bank of America Stadium. At least the scouting reports will be very fresh for the second meeting.

Panthers Regular Season Schedule (All times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 8, Seattle, 1:00 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 15, at Buffalo, 1:00 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 22, NY Giants, 1:00 p.m.
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 6, at Arizona, 4:05 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 13, at Minnesota, 1:00 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 20, St. Louis, 1:00 p.m.
Week 8: Thursday, Oct. 24, at Tampa Bay, 8:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 3, Atlanta, 1:00 p.m.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 10, at San Francisco, 4:05 p.m.
Week 11: Monday, Nov. 18, New England, 8:30 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 24, at Miami, 1:00 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 1, Tampa Bay, 1:00 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 8, at New Orleans, 1:00 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 15, NY Jets, 4:05 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 22, New Orleans, 1:00 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 29, at Atlanta, 1:00 p.m.

Wrap-up: Panthers 17, Raiders 6

December, 23, 2012
12/23/12
4:05
PM ET

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 17-6 victory against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: It’s the third straight win for the Panthers and puts them at 6-9. The Panthers even have a chance to finish outside of last place in the NFC South, which seemed like something they had locked up only a few weeks ago. That’s far too little too late after a disastrous start to the season. But spirits have been raised and the Panthers will head to the offseason with some positives to build on, no matter who is coaching the team or serving as its general manager.

Rivera watch: The winning streak helps coach Ron Rivera’s quest to keep his job tremendously. In fact, Rivera might already have done enough to stay employed. Quarterback Cam Newton has played well the second half of the season and owner Jerry Richardson might be hesitant to change coaching staffs because that might hamper Newton’s development.

Don’t get too excited: Yes, it’s very nice that the Carolina defense held Oakland to two field goals. But let’s keep this in perspective. The Panthers were playing the Raiders, who were using Matt Leinart as their quarterback.

On the plus side: One more thing that has to help Rivera’s cause is that his team was able to protect a fourth-quarter lead. That’s something that was a major problem earlier in the season.

What’s next: The Panthers conclude their season next Sunday against the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers’ 30-20 victory against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday:

What it means: Maybe players from other teams and media members have been right when they’ve said the Falcons aren’t as good as their record suggests. The Falcons played perhaps their worst game of the season. Carolina’s offense controlled the ball throughout the first half and Atlanta’s offense didn’t do much of anything until the second half. The Falcons now are 11-2 and they sure didn’t look like a team that’s capable of doing much of anything in the postseason. The win was significant for Carolina, a team that had squandered leads multiple times this season. But the Panthers (4-9) hung on this time. This win also might have helped coach Ron Rivera’s chances of keeping his job. Owner Jerry Richardson has told Rivera he needs to finish on an upswing to keep his job. A solid victory against a division rival has to score Rivera some points.

Play of the day: If you haven’t seen it yet, make sure you catch the replay of Cam Newton's 72-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. It reminds you Newton is one of the best athletes on the planet. The touchdown also gave Carolina a 23-0 lead, the kind of lead that even the Panthers couldn’t squander.

Play of the day II: Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who is one of the league’s great comeback stories, came up with a huge interception to help seal the victory. On a fourth-and-8 at Carolina’s 48-yard line, Atlanta tried to keep a drive alive. But Davis stepped in and intercepted a Matt Ryan pass that was intended for Roddy White.

Lucky day: The Panthers had lost every coin toss this season (12 at the start of games and one in overtime) coming into the day. But that streak finally came to an end Sunday.

What’s next: The Falcons host the New York Giants next Sunday. The Panthers play at San Diego next Sunday.

Halftime thoughts: Falcons-Panthers

December, 9, 2012
12/09/12
2:30
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There’s a very strange game going on at Bank of America Stadium.

The Atlanta Falcons, who have the NFC’s best record (11-1), are struggling against one of the NFL’s worst teams. The Carolina Panthers are leading the Falcons 16-0 at halftime.

Atlanta’s offense has been dismal. The Falcons only have possessed the ball for 6 minutes, 12 seconds. Carolina’s defense has been good, but the real story is Carolina’s offense.

The Panthers have 270 yards of total offense at the half, and quarterback Cam Newton has 178 passing yards (and a touchdown) and 45 rushing yards. Carolina’s offense has done a great job of keeping Atlanta’s offense off the field.

But this one’s far from over. Atlanta has a history of making comebacks and the story of Carolina’s season has been its inability to hold onto leads.

I’ll be back with a Rapid Reaction soon after the game ends.

Thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 27-21 overtime victory against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.

What it means: The Bucs were within 12 seconds of being a .500 team. Instead, Vincent Jackson caught a late touchdown pass and Tampa Bay scored in overtime to improve to 6-4 on a day when the offense wasn’t quite as explosive or efficient as it was in the past five weeks. It wasn’t a particularly pretty win against a bad team, but the Bucs remain very much in the playoff hunt. For the Panthers, this might have been the low point of a season that’s been filled with crushing losses. Carolina led by 11 points with less than five minutes remaining and managed to squander that lead. The Panthers are 2-8, which guarantees they’ll continue their streak of non-winning seasons that started in 2009. That’s about the only thing that’s guaranteed. As the losses pile up, the futures of coach Ron Rivera, his assistants and many of the players become more and more uncertain.

Dougernaut: With 138 rushing yards and four receptions for 23 yards, Doug Martin continues to make his case for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. In fact, I think I’ll call up AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky sometime soon and see if he wants to do a Double Coverage debate on Martin versus Andrew Luck as the top offensive rookie. Heck, we might have to loop in NFC East guru Dan Graziano and make it a Triple Coverage. But I feel pretty confident I can make a strong case that Martin has had a bigger impact than Luck or Robert Griffin III.

Not all about Newton: The natural instinct for fans at any level of football is to blame the quarterback when a team loses. But Cam Newton doesn’t deserve the blame for Carolina’s collapse. He completed 16 of 29 passes for 252 yards with one touchdown and zero interceptions and added 40 rushing yards. If Carolina’s defense had been able to come up with one stop late in the game, we might be talking about what an efficient game Newton had.

What’s next: The Bucs host the division-leading Atlanta Falcons next Sunday. The Panthers travel to Philadelphia for a Monday night game on Nov. 26.

Wrap-up: Broncos 36, Panthers 14

November, 11, 2012
11/11/12
6:54
PM ET
Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 36-14 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: Did you really expect it to go any other way? Carolina’s dismal season just continued to get worse as former coach John Fox, armed with Peyton Manning, came to town and provided another painful reminder of how far the Panthers have fallen since their glory days under Fox. It’s sad to say, but the best of times for this franchise now seem like they came a very long time ago. That’s only because the best of times for the Panthers were in the middle of the last decade. The Panthers are now 2-7 and appear well on their way to another losing season.

Can’t blame it all on Newton: Quarterback Cam Newton has become a lightning rod for all that ails the Panthers. But you can’t hang this one on Newton because he never had a chance. Newton was sacked seven times.

Insult to injury: Denver’s Von Miller, who was selected one spot behind Newton in the 2011 draft, had a sack, forced a fumble and had four tackles for a loss. In fact, Miller really rubbed it in by doing his version of Newton’s "Superman Celebration" after a sack on Carolina’s second series.

Same old story: It’s been pointed out frequently that Carolina’s not getting much out of highly-paid running backs DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Let’s go ahead and point it out again because the Panthers manage to pile up 52 rushing yards against the Broncos and seven of those came from Newton.

What’s next: The Panthers host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
1:00
PM ET
Cam NewtonAnthony J. Causi/Icon SMIAt 1-6 Cam Newton and the Panthers have had a disastrous start to the season.
Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise when they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: This team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history since March 2. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field, and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow), and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it, and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could turn on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need attention deficit disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league, and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions, and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.

NFC South: Land of confusion

November, 1, 2012
11/01/12
12:20
PM ET
RyanDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesMatt Ryan and the Falcons are the only undefeated team left in the NFL.
Back in the good old days, namely 2008 through 2011, the NFC South was the NFL’s most stable division.

At times, it even bordered on boring and predictable. The New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons would go out and win a bunch of games. The Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers had some ups and downs, but at least the Panthers won 12 games in 2008 and the Bucs were a pleasant surprise went they went 10-6 in 2010.

Even when the Panthers collapsed in 2010, you knew it was because owner Jerry Richardson was preparing his franchise for the labor lockout and, all the while, the Panthers had veteran general manager Marty Hurney around to keep sanity and be the voice of reason. In a somewhat similar way, the Bucs leaned on general manager Mark Dominik as they went through major changes after last season.

But it’s looking like 2012 will be remembered as the season of chaos in the NFC South. It’s like someone sent a memo saying, “Hey, let’s see who can generate the most turmoil." The memo somehow didn’t get to Falcons’ headquarters in Flowery Branch, Ga. (a town as quaint and peaceful as its name suggests), but the other three NFC South teams have taken it to heart.

The Falcons are going to win the division, but it looks like the real battle is for the title of “most dysfunctional team."

Let’s take a closer look at that race:

New Orleans Saints: Since March 2, this team has lived the biggest soap opera in NFL history. That’s the day the NFL announced its investigation of the alleged bounty program.

You know the story from there. Coach Sean Payton drew a season-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis got eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt got six games. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma got a season-long suspension and defensive end Will Smith got four games, but those suspensions are tied up in the appeals process and the legal system and I’m starting to think we might not see a final resolution this season.

Oh, and let’s not forget quarterback Drew Brees’ tumultuous negotiations before finally getting a new contract in July.

But the true gauge on this drama has been the first seven games. The Saints, a team with plenty of talent and veteran leadership, have fallen apart. They are 2-5 and their defense is on pace to shatter all sorts of records for futility.

For the longest time, it was hard to question any personnel move Loomis and Payton made. Now, it’s easy. Was signing defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley to a five-year deal that averages $4.5 million a season really a good idea? Shouldn’t the Saints have acquired some pass-rushers for coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, since that’s what his system is based on? Why did the Saints keep running backs Chris Ivory and Travaris Cadet on the roster when they’re barely using them?

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent. Maybe things will turn around when Payton returns and after Loomis has had a full offseason to massage the salary cap and tweak the roster. But, with a defense that can’t stop anyone and an offense that’s not the machine it once was, I see only more trouble for the Saints this season.

Carolina Panthers: Hurney got fired after a 1-5 start and the Panthers now have extended their record to 1-6. Coach Ron Rivera probably has about as much chance of keeping his job as John Fox did in 2010.

Quarterback Cam Newton isn’t doing well on the field and the results of his postgame news conferences have been even more disastrous.

What’s most stunning about this is that the whole world thought the Panthers were a team on the rise after going 6-10 in the first season for Newton and Rivera. I’m still trying to figure out how the Panthers have spun into chaos so quickly and in such spectacular fashion.

Dysfunction rating: 100 percent: With Hurney gone, different people who work in Bank of America Stadium give you different answers about who’s in charge. At the moment, this team is a rudderless ship.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: They’re 3-4 and there have been some signs coach Greg Schiano has this team headed in the right direction. But there still is a lot of work to be done.

That’s because predecessor Raheem Morris let things get so out of control last year that the Bucs were every bit as dysfunctional (or maybe even more so) as the Saints and Panthers are now. Schiano has cleaned out some of the problems (Tanard Jackson and Kellen Winslow) and he seems to be reconstructing quarterback Josh Freeman’s confidence.

But the Bucs haven’t completely turned the corner into a sea of tranquility. Schiano has a hardline, old-school, or whatever you want to call it, approach. Players seem to be tolerating it and that’s easy to do when there are positive signs. But, if the Bucs regress at all, players could cool on Schiano the way Tom Coughlin did.

The Bucs are coming off a huge win at Minnesota, but they lost All-Pro guard Carl Nicks to a season-ending injury earlier this week. It seems every time the Bucs start to take a step forward, something pulls them back.

Dysfunction rating: 35 percent. There’s been a lot of change here and most of it seems to be for the better, but at least a couple of players seem to need Attention Deficit Disorder medication to focus in on what’s happening in Tampa Bay.

Atlanta Falcons: They’re the only undefeated team in the league and it’s largely because of the tone of stability set by coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff. When fans called for major moves in free agency, Smith and Dimitroff simply re-signed their own guys.

Running back Michael Turner and defensive end John Abraham each have had an off-field legal issue this season. That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon in the NFL.

Those events caused only minor distractions and that’s because the Falcons have such strong leadership from the very top and because winning can take attention off everything else.

Dysfunction rating: 5 percent. That number can be knocked down to zero if the Falcons receive the memo, coming soon to Flowery Branch, that says, “Win a playoff game," and then they go out and make it happen.

Steve Smith should decide own fate

October, 31, 2012
10/31/12
10:36
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We’re closing in on the 24-hour mark until the NFL’s trade deadline, and reports continue to fly that the Carolina Panthers could be active.

There were reports that the team had received inquiries about running back DeAngelo Williams. More recently, the buzz is that teams are inquiring about wide receiver Steve Smith.

Smith
It’s not clear if the Panthers would part with either player, but I think they should strongly consider it. In the case of Williams, it would be a no-brainer if someone offered something like a third-round draft pick.

Williams doesn’t have much of a role with the current coaching staff and, even if there’s a new staff in place next season, he’s closing in on 30 and carrying some big salary-cap figures in future years.

If the Panthers can unload Williams, they should. Adding a draft pick for next year would help the next general manager.

The case of Smith is much more complicated. Scott Fowler writes the Panthers should not trade Smith, who has spent his entire career in Carolina and is a fan favorite. Fowler says Brandon LaFell is not ready to be a No. 1 receiver and Louis Murphy isn’t ready to be a No. 2.

There’s truth in that. But it’s no longer about the present for the Panthers. At 1-6, their season is over and things are probably going to continue to get uglier.

Even without a general manager and uncertainty about the future of coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers have to start looking ahead to another rebuilding mode, which would be aided by the addition of draft picks.

But, more than anything else, I think whatever happens with Smith should be up to Smith. He and owner Jerry Richardson have a close relationship. If they haven’t already, the need to sit down and talk about what Smith wants.

He’s 33 and he admitted that he contemplated moving on when the Panthers were running John Fox out of town and bringing in Rivera in 2011. Smith is extremely competitive, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he wants to move to a team with a shot at the playoffs.

But Smith also has put down deep roots in Charlotte and might not want to leave. Smith has earned the right to finish his career with the Panthers and have a statue put up outside Bank of America Stadium the moment he retires.

But he’s also earned the right to play on a good team for the first time in a long time. Smith doesn’t have a lot of time to go through another rebuilding phase. If he wants out, grab a draft pick or two and let him out.

Wrap-up: Cowboys 19, Panthers 14

October, 21, 2012
10/21/12
7:09
PM ET

Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 19-14 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium:

What it means: I’ve never been sure exactly what the point of no return is for an NFL team. Now, I know. It’s 1-5. That’s what the Panthers are and their season is officially over. There are no miracles coming from a team that came into the season with so much promise, but has produced nothing but disappointment. Coupling some key injuries (Ryan Kalil, Jon Beason, Chris Gamble) with a four-game losing streak, the Panthers have the snowball effect going and it’s about to turn into an avalanche. You can go ahead and put general manager Marty Hurney and coach Ron Rivera on the hot seat. Owner Jerry Richardson likes them both, but his patience is wearing very thin because he’s shelled out big-money salaries, but hasn’t had a winning season since 2008.

Don’t blame the officials: Yeah, I know there were three questionable calls or non-calls late in the game. But the Panthers can’t put the blame for this one on anyone else but themselves because they simply didn't make enough plays to win. If they’d played anywhere near their potential at home against a mediocre team, they would have come away with a victory that might have kept their season alive. They didn’t get the job done.

What happened to the offense? The main reason there was so much excitement about the Panthers coming into the season was because Cam Newton had great statistics as a rookie last season and the Panthers, with coordinator Rob Chudzinski, had the most entertaining offense in franchise history. I know a lot of people are saying other teams have caught on to what Newton does and doesn’t do well. There may be some truth in that. But, more than anything, I see an offensive scheme that’s not nearly as imaginative or daring as it was last season. You must be able to score more than 14 points if you expect to win.

What’s next: The Panthers play at Chicago next Sunday.

How the Panthers lost to the Giants

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
10:22
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at how the Carolina Panthers lost, 36-7, to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night.
  • Carolina quarterback Cam Newton didn’t handle the Giants’ blitz very well. When facing five or more pass-rushers, Newton was 5 of 10 for 83 yards with two interceptions. Newton entered the game second in the league with a 72.7 completion percentage against the blitz. New York’s Eli Manning, meanwhile, was much more efficient against the blitz. He completed 7 of 8 passes for 74 yards and a touchdown when facing five or more pass-rushers.
  • Carolina’s defense, which had a horrible game, was particularly bad in the secondary. Rookie cornerback Josh Norman and safety Haruki Nakamura struggled all night -- despite the Giants being without starting receiver Hakeem Nicks. Ramses Barden stepped in and had the game of his life, catching nine passes to match his reception total for the entire 2011 season. Barden caught all seven of his targets between the numbers for 114 yards.
  • Manning ate up Carolina’s secondary downfield. On passes that traveled 10 yards or more, Manning was 7 of 9 for 135 yards and a touchdown. He’s averaging 15.4 yards per attempt on throws of that distance, which ranks him second in the NFL behind Robert Griffin III.
  • Barden wasn’t the only New York replacement to burn Carolina’s defense. Andre Brown stepped in for the injured Ahmad Bradshaw and rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Carolina’s tackling was particularly bad against Brown and the running game. Brown finished with 71 yards after initial contact; 63 of those yards came in the first half as the Giants jumped out to a 20-0 lead.

Defense still holding Panthers back

September, 21, 2012
9/21/12
1:22
AM ET
Andre BrownAP Photo/Bob LeveroneAndre Brown and the Giants exposed Haruki Nakamura (43), Josh Norman -- and Carolina's whole D.


CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers got their best defensive player back from injury, patched the middle of their defensive line, picked up the best linebacker in the draft and found an alleged “steal’’ at cornerback in the fifth round.

Put all that together with talent like defensive end Charles Johnson and cornerback Chris Gamble and it was supposed to add up to a team that’s a playoff contender.

It might be time to re-think that.

After watching Carolina’s defense in a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium on Thursday night, I think the Panthers look a lot more like the 6-10 team they were a year ago.

Their defense looked worse than last season. Their defense was horrible.

“We missed tackles," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “We were soft in coverage. You can’t do that against a good football team."

No doubt the defending Super Bowl champions are a good team. But the fact is the Panthers can’t play this kind of defense and have any chance of going to the postseason.

The Giants weren’t even a fully loaded team. Starting receiver Hakeem Nicks, starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw and starting tackle David Diehl missed the game due to injuries.

Like it mattered?

Andre Brown stepped in for Bradshaw and ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries. Ramses Barden stepped into Nicks’ spot and produced nine catches for 138 yards. Raise your hand if you had heard of Brown or Barden before Thursday night.

Yeah, it helped that they were playing with quarterback Eli Manning. But it was Carolina’s defense that turned Brown and Barden into superstars.

The Giants scored on their first four drives and had a 20-0 lead by halftime and the game was pretty much over. Heck, it might have been over by the time the Giants built a 10-0 lead with 3:46 left in the first quarter.

“You get smacked in the face, you have to turn around and throw a punch," Rivera said. “Sometimes, we don’t know how."

That’s the really disappointing part -- that the Panthers don’t know how to throw a punch. The whole offseason was supposed to be about the defense getting better.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason, the leader of the defense, was coming back from missing most of last season with an injury. Same for defensive tackle Ron Edwards. The Panthers went out and drafted linebacker Luke Kuechly in the first round and they’re starting fifth-round pick Josh Norman at cornerback. They also brought in free-agent safety Haruki Nakamura and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards.

That was supposed to fix everything. Instead, it looks like the Panthers fixed nothing.

“One thing we’re trying to do is get out of this rut," Rivera said. “We’re trying to get away from how things used to be and trying to create a vibe. We’d love to have that type of vibe a team like the Giants have."

The only vibe coming out of this game was a bad one.

“If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," quarterback Cam Newton said.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images"If I was a fan of the Carolina Panthers, I would be holding my head down in shame at the product that was out there," Cam Newton said.
Newton (16 of 30 for 242 yards and three interceptions) and the offense were far from perfect, but they weren’t the root of all evil. The offense never had a chance because the defense was so bad from the very start.

“We never stopped the bleeding on defense," Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “They came out and did everything they wanted. Nobody really made a play tonight."

Maybe the Panthers can turn it around. Maybe the defense can bounce back and Carolina can contend for a playoff berth for the first time since 2008.

But it’s not looking really promising right now. It’s looking as if the Panthers should have done a lot more to patch up their defense in the offseason. Maybe Ron Edwards really is just a guy. Maybe there was a reason why Buffalo released Dwan Edwards at the start of the preseason.

Maybe the Panthers, who like to preach about building through the draft, should have drafted a good interior defensive lineman sometime in the last few years. Heck, the last good defensive tackle they drafted was Kris Jenkins in 2001. George Seifert was calling the shots then, so you have to assume the Panthers fell into that one.

Kuechly overran several plays against the Giants, just as he did in the first two games. Norman got lit up by New York’s receivers.

“I thought Josh Norman was a little soft and that’s uncharacteristic of him," Rivera said.

Makes you wonder if starting a fifth-round pick at cornerback right off the bat really is a good idea. Then there’s Nakamura. The Panthers went out and signed him simply because he was Ed Reed’s backup in Baltimore.

There was a reason why Nakamura was a backup in Baltimore. Go look at the film from Thursday night. Watch him standing still 30 yards off the line of scrimmage and not giving the cornerbacks any help. Watch the angles he took on a couple of tackle attempts that didn’t even come close to being successful. I'm having a hard time believing that Sherrod Martin, who was benched in favor of Nakamura, is any worse.

“What this was was a lesson that you get from your big brother," Rivera said. “They came in and slapped you around and dragged you through the gravel a little bit."

Yep, even after all that offseason work, Carolina’s defense is still the little brother. If that defense doesn’t somehow grow up soon, it’s going to be another long season in Carolina.

Rapid Reaction: Giants 36, Panthers 7

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
11:32
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 36-7 loss to the New York Giants on Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.

What it means: The Panthers aren’t the team on the rise that many, including myself, thought they were. They’re 1-2. There’s still hope and plenty of time to get things on track. But, right now, the Panthers aren’t looking like anything close to a playoff team.

The new and improved defense? Carolina’s defense was terrible last season, but it was easy to write that off to injuries. This year was supposed to be different with linebacker Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards returning from injuries, and the addition of linebacker Luke Kuechly and cornerback Josh Norman in the draft. None of that seemed to matter against the Giants. The Panthers couldn’t stop the run or the pass. The Giants scored on their first four possessions, and the Panthers never were in the game.

What I liked: I can’t really think of anything, other than Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, who had a pretty good night.

What I didn’t like: Most of this loss can be pinned on Carolina’s defense. I doubt Carolina could have won this game even if its offense was perfect. But the Carolina offense was far from perfect in the first half. The Panthers had a few nice plays but couldn’t sustain any sort of drive. Wide receiver Steve Smith was barely a factor. The Carolina defense was better in the second half, but it was too late to really matter.

Who's on the hot seat? Perhaps Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. The injuries were a built-in excuse for the Carolina defense last year. But there's no excuse now. It's not good when your defense is so bad that it keeps Cam Newton and a talented offense from ever getting into a rhythm.

Who else is on the hot seat? Probably rookie return man Joe Adams. He failed to handle a punt in the fourth quarter, and that gave the Giants the ball. He didn't look good all night. Adams has plenty of upside, but it might be time to sit him and let someone else (Armanti Edwards or Kealoha Pilares?) handle returns. It doesn't have to be a permanent thing. But Adams looks like a kid who needs a little more time to get comfortable.

What’s next: The Panthers play the Falcons on Sept. 30 at the Georgia Dome.

Halftime thoughts on Panthers-Giants

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
9:59
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Well, this one isn’t even coming close to living up to its hype.

The New York Giants, despite missing several injured players, are playing like defending Super Bowl champions. The Carolina Panthers are playing like a team that was 6-10 last season, instead of looking like a team on the rise.

The Giants are leading 20-0 at halftime at Bank of America Stadium.

What’s particularly disturbing from a Carolina perspective is the defense. It has been horrible. The Panthers haven’t been able to stop the run or the pass.

The Giants scored on their first four possessions. Carolina’s offense hasn’t been very good, either, but I’d put most of the blame for the first half on the defense.

I’d like to throw out some ideas on how Carolina can come back in the second half. But I’m having a tough time seeing that because I don’t think the Panthers are capable of getting back in this one.

But we’ll see.

I’ll be back with Rapid Reaction as soon as the game ends and will full that up with a longer column after I go down to Carolina’s locker room for interviews.

It's time for the Saints to panic

September, 16, 2012
9/16/12
7:16
PM ET
Drew BreesAP Photo/Bob LeveroneQB Drew Brees has been feeling the pressure lately, and Sunday was no different for the 0-2 Saints.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- To a man -- and that means players and coaches -- the New Orleans Saints say it’s not time to panic.

So I’ll go ahead and say: it is time to panic.

After Sunday’s 35-27 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, it’s time to sound every alarm there is.

Stop with the conspiracy theories. Even if side judge Brian Stropolo had been allowed to work the game with full Who Dat memorabilia under his officiating outfit, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Oh, also, let’s stop pointing to the absence of head coach Sean Payton and assistant head coach Joe Vitt.

“Sean Payton couldn’t come out and run a route,’’ New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Joe Vitt couldn’t make a tackle.’’

The simple fact is this: The Saints are not a good football team right now and that's on the players, largely veterans with a history of success, and not the coaches.

“No one’s going to panic,’’ interim head coach Aaron Kromer said. “Are we going to heat it up and are we going to keep working harder? Yes, we are.’’

Heat it up and work harder, but go ahead and start panicking. It’s time.

The fact is the Saints are 0-2, and the team that’s dominated the NFC South in recent years is in sole possession of last place in the division. If the playoffs started today, the Saints wouldn’t be in them.

When the playoffs start in January, the Saints won’t be in them unless something dramatic changes.

“I’m telling you, we’re going to stick together,’’ Kromer said. “We’re going to right the ship and we’re going to win more games than we’re going to lose. That’s what we’re going to do.’’

I’m not ruling out the possibility Kromer could end up being right. The Saints have a tremendous collection of talent. Just on personnel, this team isn’t that much different than the one that went 13-3 last season.

But that’s the problem. The Saints aren’t playing anywhere near their potential and the numbers are working against them. According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams that have started 0-2 since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams in 1990, have made the postseason only 12 percent of the time.

The numbers also suggest the 1-1 Panthers and Buccaneers have a 41-percent chance of ending up in the playoffs. Two weeks ago, who would have put the odds on the Bucs and Panthers to be mathematically so far ahead of the Saints?

That’s why it was so strange to hear Kromer open his post-game news conference by raving about how much the Panthers improved in a week.

“That’s a good football team that didn’t win last week,’’ Kromer said. “But this week, you can see the progress that they’re making.’’

What may be even more disturbing than Kromer taking note of how the Panthers improved is that he also tried to make it sound like the Saints made significant strides from their Week 1 loss to the Washington Redskins and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III.

“We asked them to cut the penalties down,’’ Kromer said. “We asked them to convert third downs and we did both of those things.’’

Hey, that’s just fantastic. The Saints didn’t have a lot of penalties and they did a better job on third downs. But how do you explain Drew Brees getting picked off twice, including a pick six to wide-open Carolina safety Charles Godfrey?

More importantly, how do you explain a defense that got lit up for the second straight week?

“We’ve played the most unconventional offenses in the National Football League,’’ Kromer said. “You go from RG3 and then to Cam Newton, they’re just unconventional. Do we have to do better against those style of offenses? Yeah, we do. But we need to get settled in on that style. We played two good offenses. We just need to keep plugging away on defense.’’

Nice try, but I’m not buying it. Yes, Griffin and Newton are unique. But defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and his players get paid a lot of money to slow down whatever challenge is in front of them.

So far, they haven’t stopped anything. That’s ironic because the common belief in the offseason was that Spagnuolo would come in and totally fix a defense that got the Saints bounced out of the playoffs the last two seasons. He came with a wonderful reputation from his previous days as a defensive coordinator. But now you have to start wondering why Spagnuolo failed as head coach of the St. Louis Rams.

More than that, I wonder if Spagnuolo has the personnel he needs to make his defensive scheme succeed. Before he began his eight-game suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis did a great job of overhauling the linebacker corps. But the Saints didn’t make any major moves up front to improve the pass rush and it's well documented that Spagnuolo likes to generate most of his pass rush with his front four.

The Saints sacked Newton only once as he completed 14 of 20 passes for 253 yards and a touchdown. They also allowed Newton to gain 71 yards on 13 carries and the Panthers to rack up 219 yards on the ground after Carolina rushed for only 10 yards against Tampa Bay last week.

There’s room to wonder about a lot of things with the Saints.

“Now, it’s a matter of going out and actually getting a win, catching a breaking, having one go your way and get on a winning streak,’’ Brees said. “We have done a great job of doing that here in the past. There is always adversity. Unfortunately, it has come to us a little bit sooner than we expected with the 0-2 start."

The Saints started 0-2 once before in the Brees era. That was in 2007. The Saints opened 0-4, spent the rest of the season trying to dig themselves out of a hole and didn’t make the playoffs.

That’s why it’s not too early for the Saints to panic. If they don’t do it now, they might find themselves in a situation where it’s too late to panic.

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