After following up their 15-1 record and Super Bowl appearance in 2015 with a disappointing 6-10 mark, the Carolina Panthers bounced back in a big way in 2017.

Carolina tied the Saints for the best record in the NFC South at 11-5, but lost the tie-breaker with a 0-2 mark against New Orleans in the regular-season. It just so happen to work out that the Panthers had to play the Saints again in the Wild Card round. Carolina had the ball down 5 with just under 2 minutes to play, but couldn’t convert and lost the game 26-31.

One of the big keys for the Panthers getting back to the Super Bowl in 2018, is figuring out a way to get more out of an offense that has come no where close to their league-leading 31.2 ppg in 2015. Carolina finished middle of the pack at 23.1 ppg (15th) in 2016. They ranked higher in 2017 at 12th, but actually scored fewer points at 22.7 ppg.

It’s certainly going to help that Cam Newton is coming into the season at 100%. Last year, Newton was coming of surgery to repair a partially torn rotator cuff. An injury that basically cost him the entire training camp. However, that’s not the big buzz around the offense going into 2018. It’s the addition of offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who has a history of getting great quarterback play.

Part of the problem last year was the little talent Carolina did have in their receiving corps missed significant time with injury. The biggest of those was tight end Greg Olson, who played in just 7 games. Olson went from catching 80 passes for 1,073 yards to a mere 17 receptions for 191 yards. They also got little to nothing out of 2nd round pick Curtis Samuel, who battled multiple injuries. Same thing with promising undrafted wide out Damiere Byrd.

All 3 of those guys are back. The only key departure was Kelvin Benjamin, who was traded for picks. They made sure injuries wouldn’t derail the unit this year by trading for Torrey Smith and signing Jarius Wright. They also used their 1st round pick on Maryland wide out D.J. Moore and a 4th round selection of Indiana tight end Ian Thomas.

Second-year running back Christian McCaffrey will also be a key factor in the passing game. McCaffrey rushed for just 435 yards as a rookie, but hauled in 80 passes for 651 yards and 5 scores. The primary back will no longer be Jonathan Stewart, who was let go. That starting spot will be up for grabs between holdover Cameron Artis Payne and free agent pickup C.J. Anderson.

The big concern with the offense is the offensive line, which lost All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell in free agency. It’s not so much that they lost Norwell, but the fact they didn’t really fill the void in free agency or the draft. It appears as though versatile backup guard/center Tyler Larsen is the front-runner to take over for Norwell. He’ll be sandwiched between veteran left tackle Matt Kalil and center Ryan Kalil. Trai Turner is back at right guard, while Daryl Williams returns at right tackle.

The biggest reason that Carolina was able to win 5 more games than they did in 2016, was the defense played up to it’s potential. After ranking 21st in total defense (359.8 ypg) and 13th in scoring (25.1 ppg), the Panthers ended the 2017 ranked 7th in total defense (317.1 ypg) and T-10th in scoring (20.4 ppg).

The expectation is for the defense to be at or near the Top 10 in both categories in 2018. There’s certainly a lot to like about their starting front-four and that’s with the loss of defensive tackle Sat Lotulelie. That’s because Carolina was able to land defensive tackle Dontari Poe in free agency. Poe should form quite a duo inside with Kawann Short. Julius Peppers was convinced to come back for one last season and will start opposite of Mario Addison. Peppers and Addison each finished last year with 11 sacks.

At linebacker the Panthers have one of the best not just in the game today, but to ever play the position in Luke Kuechly. As long as he’s on the field, it will be hard to move down the field on this defense. He’ll once again be joined by veteran Thomas Davis, though he’s suspended for the first 4 games. The good news is that they have a pretty good replacement for Davis is 4th-year pro Shaq Thompson.

Carolina traded corner Daryl Worley and cut safety Kurt Coleman, leaving two big holes to fill in the secondary. They used their 2nd-round pick on LSU corner Donte Jackson and signed Ross Crockwell. Those two will fight for either a starting spot or nickel package role alongside veteran Captain Munnerlyn and 3rd-year pro James Bradberry. Mike Adams will be back at strong safety, while free agent Da’Norris Searcy will compete with 3rd round rookie Rashaan Gaulden for the free safety spot.

It feels like the Panthers are flying a bit under the radar in 2018, though I’m sure expectations are sky-high inside Carolina’s camp. It’s almost as if people forget just how good this team was a couple of years ago. The big question is whether or not they can recreate that magic.

2018 Panthers Schedule & Projected Odds

Below you will find the early odds released by Vegas for Weeks 1-16, as well as my projected number for Week 17. Using the lines we are able to give a game-by-game win probability, which we used to come up an expected win total.

WeekOpponentEst. OddsWins
1Cowboys-2.50.55
2at Falcons+40.34
3Bengals-60.71
4BYEBYEBYE
5Giants-60.71
6at Redskins+10.49
7at Eagles+60.29
8Ravens-20.54
9Buccaneers-5.50.69
10at Steelers TNF+6.50.28
11at Lions+2.50.46
12Seahawks-30.59
13at Buccaneers+10.49
14at Browns-2.50.55
15Saints MNF-10.51
16Falcons-1.50.53
17at Saints+40.34

Projected Wins: 8.05

Over/Under Wins Prediction:  OVER 9

I would have to lean towards the OVER with the Panthers win total of 9. For me, I just don’t think this team is going to go worse than 9-7 with a fully healthy Cam Newton at quarterback. We saw this team win 11 games last year with a lackluster offense. They should be much better on that side of the ball and I wouldn’t be shocked if Newton returned to the MVP form of 2015 under Turner’s guidance. I think worse case scenario here is 9-7 and we push our bet, so while there’s not a ton of value, the OVER definitely feels like the right side.

Odds to Win the Super Bowl: +3500

I absolutely love the value with Carolina to win the Super Bowl at +3500. There are a ridiculous 16 teams with better odds to win it all right now and I’m just not buying that their are 16 teams better than the Panthers. The team with next best odds is the Broncos at +4000, who I don’t think have any shot at winning the title. Personally, I think the Panthers should be sitting around +2000.

If you like what you see and are pondering whether to make this bet, I strongly advise doing so as soon as possible. I just can’t see Carolina’s odds staying around this price range for long.

Odds to Win the NFC: +1400

I don’t think there’s quite as much value with the Panthers odds to win the NFC, but it’s still a great price to back a team with a legit shot of making the Super Bowl. Again, something they accomplished just three seasons ago.

Odds to Win the NFC South: +190

If I had to pick a team to win the NFC South, I would probably go with the Panthers. However, I don’t love this prop bet given just how strong the NFC South is going to be. The Saints and Falcons also go into this season with aspirations of winning it all and all 3 won at least 10 games a season ago.