The Panthers 21-20 week 1 loss at the hands of the Denver Broncos was a disappointing game to say the least. Carolina put themselves in position to win in the waning seconds of the game, only to watch Graham Gano hook a 50 yard field goal wide left. Uncharacteristic miscues from the Panthers defense, especially in the running game, and an offense that stalled in the second half led to a missed opportunity for the Panthers. Starting off the season by exorcising last seasons’ demons while the whole country watched on primetime would have been an excellent kickstart to what Carolina hopes is a year of redemption. Instead, the Panthers had to settle for a loss, missing revenge by 1 point. A week 1 loss is by no means a death sentence, and yet many around the media world are already tabbing to Panthers as candidates to suffer from the dreaded “Super Bowl Hangover,” a regression in performance the year after a Super Bowl appearance caused by a team becoming complacent. Whispers of the Panthers grip on the NFC South beginning to slip are also swirling, following strong performances by the Buccaneers, and to a lesser extent the Falcons and Saints.To escape this dark cloud, Carolina has to rebound with a victory in their home opener against San Francisco. Here’s a few things that have to go right in order for Carolina to extend their 13 game home winning streak.
Cam Newton- By now, you’ve probably heard of what happened to Cam Newton in the Panthers’ rematch with the highly touted Denver Broncos defense. 4 helmet-to-helmet hits on the Panthers quarterback caused a national debate on whether the NFL had taken the necessary steps to prioritize player safety. Newton was a tackling dummy for the Broncos in the second half of the game, repeatedly taking the kind of huge hits that take the air out of his lungs, along with the collective gasps of Panther fans everywhere. It was brutal, and yet Newton showed his resiliency and continued playing through the obvious pain. While the 49ers defense is not nearly as threatening as the Broncos, the unit is anything but a pushover. San Fran was able to shut down an inept Rams offense, dominating them the entire game. Newton will surly be under pressure at times during the game and will have to make the types of throws he was during the first half of the game in Denver. He’s had a week to recover from the beating he took in that game and is looking like he’s healthy. This may seem obvious, but to win, Cam will have to play well. He is the source of Carolina’s energy, everything flows through him. If he plays well, so too will the Panthers. To do this, He’ll have to forget week 1 and play with his usual confidence and swagger.
Devin Funchess – I’m on record as saying that Devin Funchess will have a better 2016 season than Kelvin Benjamin. I still stand by this statement as of now, but after week 1, I’m starting to eat my words a little bit. Benjamin seemed to immediately regain his rapport with Newton- Kelvin was able to gain 91 yards in his first game back from an ACL tear. Funchess, on the other hand, completely disappeared. He only mustered 1 catch for 9 yards as he was seemingly lost in the shuffle of Panther weapons. Funchess has the ability to be a threatening force at the second wide receiver spot, but performances like Thursday’s will not help his case. Look for him to have a good game as the 49ers defensive game plan will likely zero in on Benjamin and Greg Olsen, leaving Devin with opportunities to make plays. A second threat at the receiver position makes the Carolina offense more dynamic and explosive, but Funchess will have to get the ball rolling a little bit against San Francisco for this to come to fruition.
James Bradberry- Starting off your NFL career on prime-time, as the top cornerback for the defending NFC champions, covering a pro-bowl receiver on the road against the previous Super Bowl winners seems like it would be a little bit intimidating, no? James Bradberry started his career off in one of the toughest ways imaginable, and played admirably. He struggled at times, giving up a few easy catches and committing two penalties in the process, at times looking like a deer in the headlights. Nobody was more critical of Bradberry’s game than he was, who voiced his unhappiness after the game. Still, his performance was serviceable, but as a starting cornerback for the Panthers, they’ll need him to be a little bit more. With his first NFL game out of the way, Bradberry will hopefully settle in and play with more confidence and poise. He has the potential to be a great NFL player, and the sooner he realizes this, the better.
Kony Ealy- The Panthers made Trevor Simian, the Broncos starting quarterback who’s only play in the NFL was a kneel, look like a veteran during week one. This was in part because of shaky play in the secondary, but a lack of quarterback pressure can largely be blamed. Carolina allowed the inexperienced QB to have time in the pocket, unable to apply pressure in base coverages with no blitzes. After his breakout performance in Super Bowl 50, third year defensive end Kony Ealy has been pegged as the Panther who is expected to set the tone for the defensive line and get after the quarterback. He’s been relatively quiet in his first few years in the NFL, but the former second round pick showed the entire world what he was capable of last February. In his first game back since the breakout, however, Ealy reverted back to his former self and was largely a non-factor. Against Blaine Gabbert, another inexperienced, yet surprisingly talented quarterback, the Panthers will have to manufacture pressure while rushing just four players. Ealy will be the one Carolina counts on to get this pressure, which will become a huge factor in today’s game.
Mike Remmers- The goat (not G.O.A.T) of Super Bowl 50 was Carolina right tackle Mike Remmers. Remmers was abused by Von Miller in that game, and again in the Thursday night game, Remmers fought a losing battle. Miller and fellow pass rusher DeMarcus Ware combined for 2.5 sacks on Cam Newton, leaving Remmers in the dust and Newton with stars in his eyes. The Panthers have invested $126 Million into their franchise quarterback, but rely on the undrafted practice squad warrior to protect him and keep him upright. The 49ers pass rushers, who include the massive duo of DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, along with Amhad Brooks are not nearly as intimidating as the Broncos. Make no mistake, though, as they will look to put pressure on Newton and test Mike Remmers often. If Remmers can pass the test and keep Cam on his feet, the Panthers will win this game with ease.