With three weeks in the 2016 NFL season in the books, I wrote about the five undefeated teams and discussed whether or not their success would last. With four weeks of the season now passed, I want to take a look at a couple 1-3 teams whose expectations were sky high after disappointing endings to their 2015 seasons: The Arizona Cardinals and Carolina Panthers.
The Cardinals were a game away from the Super Bowl last year, but the Panthers destroyed them in the NFC Championship game 49-15. Coming into 2016, expectations were pretty much Super Bowl or bust for the Cards, who are led by Carson Palmer and arguably stacked with championship-ready talent on both sides of the football. But Palmer is 36 (37 in December), and it’s time to discuss whether or not his best days are behind him, and if he’s the guy that will lead the Cardinals to their first ever Super Bowl.
Actually, that discussion started after last year’s blowout loss in Carolina. Palmer threw four interceptions and lost two fumbles — it was his worst performance in a season in which he was involved in MVP debates. Unfortunately for Palmer, this wasn’t a huge surprise; he’s notorious for struggling in the postseason despite only getting there twice prior to last season (2006 and 2009 with CINCI).
The Cardinals are struggling as a whole, but Palmer needs to play elite (like he did last regular season) for them to get back on track. In the last two games, losses to the Rams and Bills, Palmer has combined for one touchdown and five interceptions. He’s out due to a concussion for Thursday night’s game against the 49ers, and we’ll see how much fight this team has in them without their guy at QB. I don’t think the Cardinals season will go to waste just yet, and I think they can beat the Niners with Drew Stanton at the helm; but ultimately, I don’t think this team will find success in the postseason with Palmer. They won’t even make it this year if they don’t wake up.
The Carolina Panthers
The 2015 Panthers’ season ended in more devastating fashion than the Cardinals’. They went 15-1, cruised through the NFC Championship game, and were a game away from wrapping up one of the greatest seasons in NFL history. It was perhaps even more devastating for Cam Newton, who had a near-flawless season and won the MVP. His two critical fumbles, one of which he was criticized for not attempting to recover it, gave the Denver Broncos 14 free points. Those two sack-fumbles, both forced by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller, were the difference in the game.
Coming into 2016, all eyes were seemingly on the reigning Super Bowl champs and losers. They faced off on Thursday Night Football to kick off the season, and it was much of the same story; Denver’s defense was too much for the Panthers’ offense to handle. Everyone expected a Super Bowl hangover from the Broncos, while some expected the Panthers to come out with a vengeance. It’s been quite the opposite. The Broncos are 4-0 and look like one of the best teams, while the Panthers are 1-3 and look like a mess on both sides of the football. They’re -3 in turnover differential, tied for 25-worst in the league; last year, they were +20, best in the league.
I’m no where near ready to declare the Panthers’ season over. They’ve lost to the Broncos, Vikings and Falcons, three teams who have a combined record of 11-1. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have issues. The reigning MVP has been sacked 13 times already, tied for second-most in the league. Newton’s in the concussion protocol now, and they need to protect him to have a chance to get back on the right track this season. I think the Panthers will come along as their schedule lightens up, and I have more confidence in them bouncing back than I do in the Cardinals.