Shutdown Countdown: Jump on Carolina Panthers bandwagon before it’s too late

The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.

We know that some team that had a losing record last year will make the playoffs. It happens all the time in the NFL.

It's almost too easy to pick the Panthers, because they're such an obvious breakout candidate. In many statistical measures, Carolina was far better last year than its 7-9 record last season.

[Related: Panthers' Greg Hardy entering his contract year]

Carolina finished 1-7 in games decided by less than a touchdown, and a team's record in close games usually evens out over time. The Panthers just were unlucky and didn't win their share.

Carolina finished 13th in Football Outsiders' DVOA per-play efficiency metric, the only losing team to finish in the top 14. Of those top 14 teams in DVOA, 12 had double-digit wins (the Giants had nine). Football Outsiders' "estimated wins," which is based on a number of factors, had Carolina at 8.8 wins. That's more than Houston and Cincinnati. tracked a simple yards per play differential – yards per play for vs. yards per play against. Six NFL teams finished above plus-0.3: San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Carolina, Pittsburgh and Houston. Pretty good company. There was no other team with a losing record in the top 11.

And in regular wins and losses, Carolina went 5-1 in its last six games after everyone stopped paying attention. The Panthers have some momentum going into this season.

Carolina will be good this year with some normal luck. Quarterback Cam Newton was tremendous in the second half of the season after everyone tuned out the Panthers. The defensive front seven is one of the best in football. Many people will say they're surprised when the Panthers are in the playoffs this season, but they shouldn't be surprised at all.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The Panthers would have been smart to add a big-time receiver for Cam Newton, but settled for Domenik Hixon. Hixon is a nice player when healthy, but he's not the type of reliable starter the Panthers need to go with Steve Smith. Cornerback Chris Gamble was released and then retired, which isn't good in a division with Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. The roster probably is a little weaker than a year ago.

Best offseason acquisition: Massive defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was being projected as a possible first overall pick at one point, and he dominated at times at Utah. He slipped to the 14th pick, where the Panthers happily grabbed him. It could turn out to be one of the best picks of the draft. His addition makes Carolina's defensive line one of the best in the game.

Biggest hole on the roster: The Panthers are building from the inside out, and it hasn't quite gotten to the perimeter yet. Receiver is an issue, and so is the secondary. Projected starting cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Norman aren't great, and safety is an issue too (one that would be helped a bit if it ever signed free agent Quintin Mikell). It's not like the secondary is so bad Carolina can't win with it, considering it went 3-1 against Atlanta and New Orleans last year, and the only loss was because Atlanta hit a Hail Mary to set up a last-second field goal. But it's a concern.

Position in flux: The Panthers have overspent at running back so it shouldn't be a problem, but Jonathan Stewart isn't healthy. Stewart's bum ankle has put his status for camp in doubt, and there still isn't a clear timeline for his return from the Panthers. DeAngelo Williams was inconsistent last year, but finished with 210 yards in Week 17 against the Saints incredibly putrid defense. The Panthers have relied on both talented backs for years, but it's hard to project how effective Stewart will be in that tandem.

Player you might not have heard of yet, but will soon: Running back Kenjon Barner had a great season at Oregon last year. He had 1,767 yards and 21 touchdowns last season and was a first-team All-American. He's not huge, at a listed 5-9, 190 pounds, but it was a surprise to see him slip all the way to the sixth round. The Panthers grabbed him despite their depth at running back, which seems smart. Barner is already getting looks as a returner, and if Stewart is hobbled and Barner gets a chance, he's talented enough to contribute right away.

Stat fact: If you read about the oddity of Newton being ripped for a season in which he was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for more than half a season, you know his stats from the final nine games last year. But it bears repeating, in case you mistakenly think Newton is for some reason the one holding Carolina back, rather than being the biggest reason the Panthers will break out this season:

Newton's last nine 2012 games: 2,168 yards, 14 TD, 4 INT, 159-for-273 (58.2 percent), 94.7 rating, 76 rushes, 431 rushing yards, 5 rushing TD
Prorated for a full season: 3.854.2 yards, 24.9 TD, 7.1 INT, 135.1 rushes, 766.2 rushing yards, 8.9 rushing TD

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Winning the NFC South. Had the Panthers won half of their game decided by less than a touchdown last year, they would have been 10-6, so they're not as far off as people think. If not for a very unlucky series of events late at Atlanta, they would have swept the Saints and Falcons last year. Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly are already stars, even if not everyone realizes it. By the end of the year, the Panthers will get a lot more respect.

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Injuries, bad luck or Ron Rivera's decisions could be a hindrance. And losing talented offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski could hurt. If the secondary is a problem in a pass-happy NFC South, and Carolina doesn't have enough weapons to help Newton, another disappointing season isn't out of the question.

The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: Steve Smith is 34 years old. He will slow down at some point. Smith was still very good last year, but there were some signs of slippage. His yards per catch dipped from 17.6 in 2011 to 16.1. He had seven touchdowns in 2011 and just four in 2012. Last year he failed to reach 65 yards in a game eight times. The problem for the Panthers is, when Smith completely hits the wall they have nobody else to fill his shoes as a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Brandon LaFell has shown flashes before, but he is far from proving he's Smith's heir apparent. For the Panthers to be successful this year, they need Smith to ignore his age for yet another season.

TheShutdownCountdown previews you might have missed
32. Oakland Raiders
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
30. Arizona Cardinals
29. Buffalo Bills
28. Cleveland Browns
27. Tennessee Titans
26. Kansas City Chiefs
25. New York Jets
24. San Diego Chargers
23. Philadelphia Eagles
22. Miami Dolphins
21. St. Louis Rams
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Dallas Cowboys
17. Detroit Lions
16. Pittsburgh Steelers
15. Indianapolis Colts
14. New Orleans Saints
13. Chicago Bears
12. New York Giants

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