When looking back at the season, a 2-7 record is pretty hard to swallow. The Panthers could just as easily be 7-2 as five of their seven losses (Giants & Broncos excluded) have come by a total of 18 points.
This squad has found one way to lose after another, seemingly erasing the progress that occurred at the end of the 2011 season. Panthers fans were encouraged when the team bounced back from a 2-8 start to win four of its final six games last year, but frustration has infiltrated Panther nation as fans view this season as regression.
Following the disappointing loss to Dallas, owner Jerry Richardson lowered the boom by firing long-time GM Marty Hurney. Hurney’s firing sent a message throughout the organization that things are either going to change, or else.
The win in Washington two weeks ago let the players and coaches take a deep breath and actually smile for the first time in a while, but last week’s debacle against former coach John Fox and Denver put everyone right back on edge.
Here’s a quick look at what to expect for the rest of the season. Each game is marked with a “winability” rating of 0-5. 0=no chance to win, 5=take it to the bank.
Tampa Bay (Nov. 18)
The Panthers will get their shot for some redemption when the Buccaneers come calling in week 11. Carolina looked sluggish in the season-opening loss in Tampa, getting shut out in the first half while Kealoha Pilares’ five yards led the team in rushing. The Bucs actually lead the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, so it will likely take a strong performance by Cam Newton and the receiving corps to take down Tampa. Winability: 3.
@Philadelphia (Nov. 26)
One of the biggest gripes Panthers fans had with this year’s schedule was the lack of primetime exposure. Perhaps the only saving grace of playing on Monday Night Football in a season such as this will be knowing the Cats’ opponent is going through something worse. The soap opera known as the Philadelphia Eagles may or may not have Mike Vick or Andy Reid when this game rolls around, although the likely scenario is both will be there and will be mercilessly booed. The Eagles are constantly hyped to be the Globe Trotters while always looking more like the Washington Generals. A win in front of a national audience would not only be big for this team’s perception, but would be huge for the confidence of Cam Newton. Winabilty: 3
@Kansas City (Dec. 2)
Let’s just get it out there: the Chiefs stink. Six of their seven losses during the season’s first half were by double digits, while they have a legitimate quarterback controversy between Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn. That’s like arguing over whether to eat dinner at Taco Bell or Long John Silvers: either way, you’re screwed. Jamaal Charles is KC’s workhorse, rushing for 634 yards in the season’s first half despite limited touches because his team is always playing from behind. If the Panthers take away the running game and don’t turn the ball over, this will be as close to a sure thing as you’ll find. Winability: 4
Atlanta (Dec. 9)
The Falcons finished their first half 8-0, and as Panthers fans are well-aware, that should be 7-1. You can blame Haruki Nakamura for the blown coverage all you want, but Cam’s got to hold onto that football to ice the game. Call me crazy, but I’m just not buying this Atlanta team as great. Michael Turner just keeps getting older and slower while their defense has been far short of spectacular. The Cats had ‘em at their place and it will be fun to see them get another shot, especially if the dirty birds come in undefeated. Winability: 1
@San Diego (Dec. 16)
If you thought the Chicago game meant a lot to Ron Rivera, take that and multiply it for this one. Rivera was the defensive coordinator in San Diego before coming to Carolina, so you know he’ll have the Cats fired up to show his former employer what his new squad’s made of. It’s been a typical season in San Diego so far; a roller coaster of wins and losses while ending up just slightly above mediocrity. It would be hard to believe Norv Turner would survive the season if the Chargers don’t make the playoffs, so you know he’ll do everything in his power to have his troops ready. Like Tampa, San Diego has stopped the run well but has been burned in the passing game. It could be a big day for Mr. Ace Boogie as he plays his first ever game on the west coast. Winability: 3
Oakland (Dec. 23)
Santa’s got a special surprise for Panthers fans this Christmas: The Raiders! Nothing can lift a team’s spirits around the holiday season like a visit from one of the most poorly-run franchises in professional sports. On the other hand, nothing can damper spirits like losing to the Raiders on Christmas Eve…Eve, so this will be a huge one for the Panthers. Assuming the Cats snag a few wins along the way in the second half, this game might end up being the one that decides Rivera’s fate. A loss to Oakland in the season’s home finale would be a death sentence. Winability: 4
@New Orleans (Dec. 30)
Well for the 700th consecutive season, the Panthers finish the year against the Saints. Ok it just seems that way, but seven times since 2002 is getting pretty predicable. This time it will be back in the Superdome, where the suddenly-rejuvenated Saints might actually have a lot to play for. If the competition for the second wild card slot stays as weak as it is right now, it’s not out of the question for the Saints to creep back into that race and end up needing a week 17 win to sneak into the playoffs. Regardless of what’s on the line, this one always means a lot to the Panthers. Who-dat-Ville will be rocking for the rivalry game as Carolina will attempt to sweep the season series from New Orleans for the first time since daylight still came and we still had a Delhomme back in ’08. A win in the bayou could really give this squad momentum heading into the offseason. Winability: 2