If, And, But: The Carolina Panthers Will Be in the Playoffs in 2013

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Will the third time be the charm?

Head coach Ron Rivera inherited the Carolina Panthers in 2011, a team coming off a 2-14 showing the previous year.

After a 6-10 debut campaign, Rivera's second year at the helm resulted in a 7-9 mark in 2012, including wins in the team's final four games. And three of those victories during the season included a sweep of the New Orleans Saints and a win over the Atlanta Falcons.

So what's next? In the NFC South, the only one of the eight current divisions that was not won by the same team two years in a row, anything is possible. And no doubt Carolina has this little factoid on its mind.

And the Carolina Panthers will reach the playoffs for the first time since 2008…

If: Quarterback Cam Newton and the team in general can avoid another terrible start. In each of the past two seasons, the Panthers opened with eight losses in their first 10 contests. The club rallied to a 4-2 finish in their final six games in 2011 and a year ago closed the season with four consecutive wins and a 5-1 mark in their final six contests. And Newton was hot after a sluggish start in 2012, throwing 11 touchdown passes (two interceptions) and running for 387 yards and four scores in his final seven outings.

And: Carolina's defense continues to head in the right direction. In 2011, the Panthers allowed 429 points and gave up 46 offensive touchdowns. This past season, Rivera's team surrendered 363 points and 13 fewer offensive touchdowns (33). Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year and defensive ends Charles Johnson (12.5) and Greg Hardy (11.0) combined for 23.5 of the team's 39 sacks. This is a unit that bears watching this season.

But: The team has to get back to running the football with a little more commitment. Yes, the Panthers did finish ninth in the NFL in rushing yardage this past season. But keep in mind that Newton led the club with 741 yards on the ground. And while running back DeAngelo Williams was close on Newton's heels, 200 of his 737 rushing yards came in the season finale at New Orleans. You can expect the Panthers' quarterback to get his yards, but Williams, Jonathan Stewart (limited to 9 games in 2012) and Mike Tolbert need to produce more in 2013.

So what do you think? The Panthers have proven they can put points on the board and their defense appears to be on the rise. But they also finished six games behind the NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons in 2012 and that's a lot of ground to make up in one season. Will this team continue to move forward? Or is Rivera's club destined to remain in neutral (or worse) for another season?

Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country, can be heard on Yahoo! Sports Radio and many other networks and was blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.

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