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Shutdown Countdown: Carolina Panthers become the hunted in the NFC South

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

If you believe in regression to the mean, especially when it comes to luck in close games, the 2013 Carolina Panthers were the team to invest in.

And, the 2014 Carolina Panthers might be a team to be wary of.

Two years ago, the Panthers were a staggering 1-7 in games decided by less than a touchdown. There's a lot of bad luck involved in that. That had to change, and did it ever. The Panthers were 5-2 in such games last year with some doozies, like when the refs picked up the flag on the last-play pass interference against the Patriots or the incredible last-minute rally against the Saints.

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Carolina went 12-4, and the Panthers earned that. They were a good team, with a great young quarterback and a ridiculous defensive front seven. They'll be a good team again this year, but there are some reasons for concern.

Carolina's three biggest weaknesses last season were probably the secondary, offensive line and receivers, and they took major hits in all three areas. So those spots are really weak now.

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Domenik Hixon's last-minute touchdown beat the Saints and led to the Panthers' NFC South title (USA Today Sports Images)

Domenik Hixon's last-minute touchdown beat the Saints and led to the Panthers' NFC South title (USA Today Sports …

The Panthers had an offseason plan, and that was to get out of a salary-cap mess. General manager Dave Gettleman was dead set on not starting that cycle again by signing back-loaded contracts this offseason. That's smart, but the catch is that they added very little this offseason while losing a lot. The Panthers will be better off in 2016 and 2017 for that approach, and we'll be sure to note that in those previews. But for 2014, there are some issues.

Maybe Cam Newton is good enough to overcome the deck that's stacked against him (and he might be), and the defense is still going to be fantastic. Just don't expect 12-4 again this season.

2013 review in less than 25 words: The Panthers were 1-3 before winning 11 of their final 12 and making everyone who picked them to win the NFC South happy.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: You know the answer to this one. The Panthers lost their top three wide receivers, left tackle Jordan Gross and half of their starting secondary. Receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, and safeties Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper are decent and cheap veteran fill-ins, but nobody can rightly say the Panthers are better right now.

Best offseason acquisition: Hard to pick Cotchery, whose last 1,000-yard season was 2007. Harper might be the pick, because he was a good safety for the Saints for many years, but he is coming off an injury-filled 2013 at age 30. Instead we'll go with receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the team's first-round pick out of Florida State. He's still raw, and even though the Panthers desperately need a go-to receiver, he doesn't seem like he can be that guy right away. However, the Panthers have done little to help Newton the past few years, and investing in a 6-5, 240-pound athlete who can grow with Newton is a good step in the right direction.

Achilles heel: While the issues at receiver have gotten a lot of attention, the truth is the combination of Cotchery, Benjamin and Avant might not be that much worse than Steve Smith (the 2013 version), Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn. Last year's crew wasn't very good either. For the Panthers, the spot that is really scary is the offensive line.

It wasn't a strength heading into last year, but the Panthers got some solid play, including a surprisingly good year from late veteran addition Travelle Wharton at guard. Wharton is still unsigned, steady left tackle Gross has retired, and the line looks like a mess. When people say the Panthers' receiver situation is bad, just remember that it looks a lot more stable than the offensive line.

Position in flux: Let's go back to the offensive line, because that will be a big story for this team. Gross retired in the offseason, and the Panthers had no great backup plan for that. Nate Chandler, who was playing defense two years ago, could be the left tackle. He was undrafted out of college, and played defensive tackle as a rookie in 2012 to offensive line with the Panthers. Or it might be Byron Bell, who has been an average right tackle for three years. Bell was also undrafted out of college. Unless there's a surprise contender who wins the job in camp or a late signing, one of them will protect Newton's blind side. Maybe one has a breakout season, but it's a scary situation going into the season. 

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Cam Newton (AP)

Cam Newton (AP)

Ready to break out: I know you, informed reader, understand how good Newton is. But here we are, after three phenomenal seasons, and he's still underrated. ESPN's Ron Jaworski has him ranked 14th among NFL quarterbacks. ESPN.com's Mike Sando polled NFL executives, and they ranked Newton 16th. I'm baffled by this.

There are not a dozen quarterbacks in the league better than Newton. No chance. I thought last year would have put an end to the silliness when it comes to Newton, the nitpicking about his sideline demeanor and such. He's a phenomenal quarterback who has had three incredible seasons with a terrible offensive supporting cast. I don't know what more Newton needs to do. But he is an elite quarterback, without a doubt. Maybe he will "break out" this year and we can move beyond the petty arguments surrounding him.

Stat fact: Among teams with at least 10 fourth-down attempts last year, Carolina had by far the best success rate at 77 percent. Ron Rivera turned into "Riverboat Ron," and it paid off in a big way. Rivera rode that narrative to a coach of the year award (one that Bill Belichick should have won in a landslide, but whatever) after being on a very hot seat through four games last year. There's no doubt Rivera's increased aggressiveness gave the Panthers more confidence, aside from simply being a better way to operate the football team.

Schedule degree of difficulty: Although the Panthers' schedule is statistically the 22nd hardest, it looks a lot more difficult than that. The NFC South should be good. And what about this stretch from Week 3 to 10: vs. Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, vs. Chicago, at Cincinnati, at Green Bay, vs. Seattle, vs. New Orleans, at Philadelphia. That's an eight-game stretch against seven teams that will be in the top 12 of these power rankings, with a game in Baltimore thrown in. And the final five games of that run include four 2013 division winners and the Saints, who won a wild-card playoff game.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: The defense might be good enough to carry this team. Linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis cover so much ground, and the line in front of them is so strong, that the Panthers are a nightmare for offenses.

I believe in Newton, and maybe he can elevate the level of what looks like one of the worst offensive lineups in the NFL at the other 10 spots. That's what he did last year, after all. Despite some holes, there's enough strengths that it's realistic to think the Panthers could be the first team to repeat as NFC South champions.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: If the Panthers slip a lot, it's probably because teams figured out how to get to their secondary, and the offense asked Newton to do too much. Compare the Panthers offense to the Broncos, for example. Center Ryan Kalil obviously starts for Denver. None of the other 10 players would. The Broncos are an extreme comparison, but the fact is the Panthers have two blue-chip offensive players, and that's it (tight end Greg Olsen is good but nobody is putting him in the top tier).

And if Newton, who has 364 rushing attempts in three seasons, gets hurt? Yikes. The defense is too good to keep the Panthers from pulling a 2013 Falcons or anything, even in the worst scenario that doesn't involve Newton missing games, but it's possible we might shave a handful of wins off their 2013 total. 

The crystal ball says: I wish the Panthers would have done more the past few years to help Newton. Look what the 49ers have built around Colin Kaepernick. Newton would be even more fun to watch if he upgraded from one of the worst supporting casts in the league. The truth is, Newton has had three great seasons with little help.

At some point, being well below average on the offensive line and at wide receiver (and perhaps at running back too, depending on what you think 31-year-old DeAngelo Williams and oft-injured Jonathan Stewart have left) catches up to you. I understand Carolina's offseason plan, but while the Falcons rebuilt their lines, the Saints signed impact safety Jairus Byrd and the Buccaneers added a handful of impressive free agents, the Panthers basically sat out free agency after franchise-tagging defensive end Greg Hardy. That's fine, and it'll help down the road, but it feels like a step back this season for Carolina.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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