Posted: Friday August 5, 2005 4:10PM; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2005 5:00PM
4. If you're the Panthers, winning the NFC South starts with beating Atlanta, the defending division champ. But beating the Falcons has been nigh impossible of late for Carolina. The Panthers lost twice to their primary nemesis in '04, and have dropped nine of 10, and 12 of 14 dating to the beginning of the '98 season. This year, Carolina will have plenty of preparation time for Atlanta. The two first meet in Week 13 in Charlotte, with the rematch not coming until New Year's Day in Atlanta.
5. Speaking of payback, the Panthers also owe the Saints a little. Remember how visiting New Orleans denied Carolina an NFC wild-card berth and a slice of history with its 21-18 Week 17 upset of the Panthers? With a win at home that day, Carolina would have gone 8-8 and become the first team to ever reach the playoffs after a 1-7 start. Instead, the Panthers' 7-9 mark was just another example of too-little, too-late. "We just ran out of gas," Fox said. "It took so much energy just to get in the position to make that game meaningful."
Carolina doesn't have to wait too long to avenge that loss to the Saints. New Orleans will be at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte for the Sept. 11 season-opener.
Carolina rookie linebacker Adam Seward -- a fifth-round pick out of UNLV -- has some fine athletic bloodlines. His mom, you see, was in the NFL. Well, sort of. Seward's mother once was a Chicago Honey Bear, which is what they called the team's cheerleading squad for most of the Walter Payton era. In addition, Seward's father once coached with Denver's Mike Shanahan at Eastern Illinois.
Fantasy Geek Note
Knowing who to draft in the Panthers' crowded backfield is a tough call. But you might want to take a late-round flyer on Shelton, who scored a whopping 20 touchdowns for Louisville last season. Shelton will be asked to primarily handle the team's short-yardage duties early on, but he's more versatile than that and reminds Fox somewhat of a younger, healthier Stephen Davis.
All offseason, I've gone back and forth as to who my NFC Super Bowl pick will be. I love everything Minnesota did this offseason and think the time may finally be right for the Vikings to stop messing around and live up to their potential. But then there's Carolina, and when I look up and down its depth chart, I don't see any significant holes (with the possible exception of having to rely on 33-year-old Chris Weinke if Delhomme goes down).
This Panthers team has improved its offensive line and secondary, goes at least three deep at running back, and fields one of the league's finest defensive lines, highlighted by the ridiculously athletic Julius Peppers. Carolina's biggest question mark this training camp? It's who will win the punting battle -- Tom Rouen or Jason Baker? As pressing issues go, that's not the worst problem to have.
Carolina will have its hands full just finding a way to unseat the talented Falcons as NFC South champs. But no matter how they get to the playoffs, the Panthers should make a lot of noise come January. Carolina took its lumps and suffered the post-Super Bowl blues in the first half of last season, but that horrendous wave of injuries just served to increase the depth it has at its disposal this year. And in the second half of '04, there was no more dangerous team than the Panthers.
With a great coaching staff, a favorable early-season schedule and a roster that has to be disaster proof after last year, I'm leaning hard toward Carolina as my NFC Super Bowl pick.