CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here’s a look at the Super Bowl prospects of the Carolina Panthers, who finished the season 11-5. The tiers consist of: Realistic Super Bowl expectations; Should contend, but there are question marks; Middle of the pack; Lots of work to do; and Nowhere close.
Westgate odds to win Super Bowl LIII: 30-1
Should contend, but there are question marks: Carolina’s road to Super Bowl LII basically was stalled by the Saints, who beat the Panthers twice during the regular season and again in the playoffs. Only once in those three games -- a 31-26 playoff loss at New Orleans -- was Carolina at full strength. Now the odds-makers put the Panthers behind Seattle (20-1) and Dallas (20-1), which didn’t make the NFC playoffs? And way behind division rivals New Orleans (16-1) and Atlanta ((18-1)? You can almost hear Ron Rivera already using the "no respect" card. Not that the Panthers don’t have questions. They have new offensive and defensive coordinators. But only one of those changes was sparked by performance. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was fired and Norv Turner hired with the hope a new set of eyes will help the growth of quarterback Cam Newton, who struggled passing for the second straight year after his 2015 MVP season. But Newton was good enough to get Carolina to the playoffs. Find him a true No. 1 receiver along with developing the young ones he has -- and figuring out how to better use 2017 first-round pick Christian McCaffrey -- and this offense can be dangerous. Hey, Philadelphia won it all with a backup quarterback and a rebuilt receiving corps. The defense that ranked seventh in the NFL should again be solid with linebacker Luke Kuechly and other key players returning. Defensive line coach Eric Washington is ready to replace coordinator Steve Wilks, hired as the head coach at Arizona. Remember, a change in coordinators last season didn’t have a negative impact. The question mark is: Will 38-year-old end Julius Peppers, who tied for the team lead in sacks with 11, be back? If he retires, that’ll leave a big hole. But the nucleus of what helped the Panthers reach the playoffs should be enough to make them one of a handful of NFC teams to watch.