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Jesse Pantuosco

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Panther Problems

Saturday, December 15, 2018


Welcome to Struggle City. Population: the Carolina Panthers. The Fightin’ Cam Newtons aren’t dead yet—but they’re on life support. Which is pretty astounding when you think about it. I mean Carolina had this thing in the BAG. Going into Week 10, the Panthers were a shoe-in for the playoffs, a mortal lock at 6-2 with upcoming freebies against the Bucs, Browns and Lions (not exactly a murderer’s row). Five weeks and five losses later, the Panthers sit at a thoroughly mediocre 6-7 with only a nine-percent chance of making the postseason. And don’t expect Carolina to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Two of the Panthers’ final three games are against the NFC-leading Saints, a team they went 0-3 against last year. The other is against the Falcons, who delivered Carolina its first loss of the season back in Week 2.

 

You have to really strain your eyes to see it, but there is a silver lining if you read the fine print. Two of Carolina’s last three contests are at home, where the Panthers hold a 5-1 record this year. That’s encouraging, but to steal a catchphrase from the incomparable Gob Bluth (who can usually be found wearing his $6,300 suit), COME ON. This should have been a layup, an empty net breakaway, a BP fastball right down the pipe. How did a team with so much talent collapse in such stunning fashion? This isn’t your run-of-the-mill dry spell either. The Panthers are a broken, dispirited mess. They’re Humpty Dumpty in football form, but with losses mounting in the Tar Heel State, even Cam and his patented brand of fourth-quarter magic may not be able to put this team back together again. 

 

As a sleep-deprived, coffee-reliant fantasy writer, I understand the grind of a 16-game football season. And it probably hasn’t helped that four of Carolina’s last five games have come away from the more comfortable confines of Bank of America Stadium. There are easier ways to make a living than showing up to work with 70,000 fans wearing enemy colors, most emboldened by hours of parking lot shenanigans and 30-packs of liquid courage, heckling and hurling profanities your way. But couldn’t Ron and the riverboat boys have waited a month or two before maxing out their vacation days?

 

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This won’t come as much solace to Panthers fans, but only one of their defeats this year has come by more than a touchdown. That came in Week 10 when the Steelers trounced Carolina in a Thursday night beat-down at Heinz Field, the domino that began the Panthers’ current five-game losing skid. The Panthers haven’t shown an ounce of clutch, allowing 70 second-half points while submitting just 45 of their own during that disastrous stretch. That carnage includes a pair of fourth-quarter collapses, one at the hands of Seattle and another last week in a shameful loss to Cleveland.

 

I don’t know if Aesop was a football fan or not (can you imagine the ancient Greeks gathering around the flat screen on Sundays to watch Red Zone and crush Tostitos?), but no fable encapsulates the Panthers’ current predicament quite like The Tortoise and the Hare. Given a huge leg up in the NFC wild card race (they were never going to catch New Orleans), the Panthers got complacent and now, just like the Hare who mailed it in and lost everything, Carolina is fighting for its playoff life. Heck even the Redskins, currently quarterbacked by seventh-year nomad Josh Johnson (he of six career touchdown passes), have better playoff odds than the rapidly deteriorating Panthers (Fivethirtyeight.com gives the ‘Skins a generous 10-percent chance of playing January football).

 

With two more dates against the Saints, who are gunning for the NFC’s top playoff seed and will likely put out their A team in Week 17, Carolina’s dim wild card hopes are hanging by a thread. We’re talking about the mother of all meltdowns, a choke job that would make the 2016 Falcons blush. What’s so aggravating about this entire ordeal is that Carolina isn’t some overachieving team hitting a midseason wall. They’ve been here before. This is a team that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl not too long ago. They got their heads bashed in by Von Miller in that snooze-fest of a championship, but that’s beside the point. Think of the treasure trove of talent this team is working with. Cam Newton remains the league’s gold standard for mobile quarterbacks while backfield wizard Christian McCaffrey has quickly ascended to workhorse status. Meanwhile Luke Kuechly has been linebacker royalty since the day he arrived in Charlotte, and he’s not surrendering his crown anytime soon. That illustrious trio carried the Panthers to an 11-5 regular season record last season, but this year, it hasn’t been enough to stop the bleeding.  

 

It’s been a Murphy’s Law kind of year for Carolina. Injuries have beset the offensive line with turnstile Chris Clark filling in for All-Pro tackle Daryl Williams (knee). The Panthers have also downgraded considerably at left guard, replacing Andrew Norwell (who bolted to Jacksonville in free agency) with ex CFL-er Greg Van Roten (PFF’s No. 45 guard out of 80 qualifiers). Rookie pass-catcher D.J. Moore has lived up to his first-round billing, leading all rookies with 676 receiving yards, but Devin Funchess has regressed since last year’s breakout while tight end safety blanket Greg Olsen hasn’t been able to stay on the field due to chronic foot problems. Newton has provided his usual heroics while second-year jack-hammer McCaffrey has earned himself a seat at the head table, joining the likes of other backfield dynamos like Touchdown Todd, Ezekiel Elliott and Lord Saquon. But no man is an island. Championships are won by teams, not players, and lately in Carolina, it’s been too much C-Mac and not enough everyone else.   

 

Frankly, that’s not even the worst of it. Carolina’s offense hasn’t been gangbusters by any means, but that’s not why their season has gone up in flames. The Panthers’ real Achilles heel has been their woeful defense, a unit that has vastly underperformed all season. That’s a drastic departure from Carolina teams of years past. Under the tutelage of head coach Ron Rivera—who played on one of the greatest defenses ever during his time with the Chicago Bears—Carolina has consistently suffocated opposing offenses, emphasizing a relentless pass-rush while also placing a high premium on sturdy secondary play.

 

Last year the Panthers produced the league’s third-most sacks (50). The year before, they were second (47). This year, they’re tied for 23rd with just 30 quarterback take-downs. Maybe that’s why they’ve been lit up by Russell Wilson (season-high 339 yards in Week 12), Ben Roethlisberger (perfect quarterback rating in Week 10), Eli Manning (326 yards in Week 5) and Baker Mayfield (81.8 completion percentage last week), among others. James Bradberry has been a consistent burn victim in the secondary (five touchdowns allowed) while rookie Donte Jackson has already missed nine tackles (10th among cornerbacks this season).

 

Carolina’s defense has been in such upheaval that the team recently parted ways with position coaches Brady Hoke and Jeff Imamura. It hasn’t made a lick of difference though, as the Panthers were again outclassed, by Gregg Williams of all people, in last week’s loss to Cleveland. Rivera has been among the steadier head coaches in football throughout his Carolina tenure, but even his grasp is slipping. I’m sure a large contingent of the Panthers’ fan-base still isn’t over his decision to go for two instead of taking the conventional route and kicking the game-tying extra point in a Week 11 loss to Detroit. Anthony Lynn received praise for pulling the same stunt Thursday night in Kansas City, but unlike the slumping Panthers, the Chargers actually executed.

 

The Panthers are staring at the prospect of a lost season, but they’re not alone in their misery. We knew the Panthers had warts but none of us thought the Vikings would flop. After winning the Kirk Cousins sweepstakes, last year’s NFC runner-up looked ready to hoist a Lombardi Trophy or at least chase one. Now the Vikes would be lucky to even make the postseason.

 

Sitting at 6-6-1 with three games remaining, Minnesota is limping to the finish line. Cousins has looked cooked, compiling a deeply mediocre 78.3 quarterback rating with three turnovers in his last two contests. The O line has been leakier than a bad pipe, yielding sacks left and right while giving Cousins little time to hit his receivers downfield. That might explain why Adam Thielen has taken a backseat recently, topping 70 yards just once in his last five outings after beginning the year with a record eight-straight 100-yard games. And don’t even get me started on the Vikings’ pathetic run game. No team has scored fewer rushing touchdowns than Minnesota this year while only the Falcons and Cardinals have rushed for fewer yards. Geez, where’s Case Keenum when you need him? The Vikings have combined for 17 points in their last two games, both losses. Their latest setback, a 21-7 defeat Monday night in Seattle (the Seahawks are no stranger to stomping on Minnesota’s heart), cost offensive coordinator John DeFilippo his job. Could head shot-caller Mike Zimmer be next on the chopping block?

 

Losers of three of their last four, the Vikings need a win in the worst way and it will have to come Sunday against the Dolphins, who are fresh off turning the tables on their nasty, older brother, the hated division-rival Patriots. Minnesota better hope the Dolphins exhausted their season supply of miracle dust in last week’s South Beach stunner, or else they’ll have to dig deep for another Minneapolis Miracle. Can lightning strike twice? With Minnesota’s season going down the tubes, it may have to.

 

What’s the fantasy spin?

 

With the Panthers’ defense in free-fall, I think we can expect big things from Drew Brees Monday night in Carolina. I know that’s not going out on a limb, but the long-time signal-caller has taken his foot off the gas in recent weeks, averaging a decidedly un-Brees-like 199 passing yards over his last three contests with three interceptions during that same span. That’s significant because Brees had only thrown one pick all year prior to Week 12. It’s the end of days! But even playing on the road (gasp), this matchup still screams bounce-back for Brees. If this game were on the main DFS slate this week, you better believe I’d be hammering that Brees/Michael Thomas stack.

 

As for the Vikings, I think this is a get-right spot for Kirk Cousins. After battling the elements in New England and Seattle the past two weeks, the Vikings return home to play indoors against the Dolphins, who are in a let-down spot coming off the high of last week’s energy-exerting win over the big, bad Patriots. It came in a losing effort, but Tom Brady had by far his best game of the season when he faced the Dolphins in Week 14, annihilating Miami for 358 yards and a trio of touchdowns through the air. That’s no coincidence as the Dolphins were playing without the help of star cornerback Xavien Howard, the current NFL leader in interceptions with seven. With Howard doubtful for Sunday coming off last week’s knee scope, look for Cousins to feast against a vulnerable Dolphins secondary in Week 15. 



Jesse Pantuosco is a football and baseball writer for Rotoworld. He has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JessePantuosco.
Email :Jesse Pantuosco



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