In a classic NFC South battle, both teams will sport new quarterbacks, two of the best running backs in the NFL, and each are seen as wild cards in a division that many have being dominated by the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Divisional games are paramount when it comes down to playoff races near the end of the season. This Week 2 matchup very well could have huge implications later down the stretch.
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Everything you need to know:
When: 12:00 p.m. CT, Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC.
Expectations for Carolina
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The Panthers added quarterback Sam Darnold via trade from the New York Jets at the beginning of the offseason (more on that in a minute). The shift from Teddy Bridgewater to Darnold has conveyed their desire for more upside in Darnold over a known floor in Bridgewater, which could play well with offensive coordinator Joe Brady's ideas as a play caller. On top of adding Darnold, Carolina will see the return of its All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey from season-ending injuries. The expectation is that the offense should be explosive this season, but it's all hypothetical until all the pieces actually come together. Carolina has the ability, in theory, to compete in a division that features three teams with a ton of question marks surrounding each of them. This first matchup against the new-look Saints will be an important test for both sides.
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Carolina was quite active in free agency as they freed up cap space at the beginning of the offseason. However, the Panthers did not make a move for a "big" name and instead opted to sign a number of low-cost players that could pay out big this season. Most notable is former Saints tight end Dan Arnold, who had a good year with the Arizona Cardinals (totaling 31 receptions for 438 yards, with 4 touchdown catches). The Panthers also added linebacker Denzel Perryman, defensive end Haason Reddick, and wide receiver David Moore. The free agent additions helped shore up defensive shortcomings while also providing additional depth on the offense. Yet, the biggest acquisition came via trade and is one we already talked about: Sam Darnold. The Southern California product was highly touted when he entered the league, but was unable to find much success with the floundering Jets. He is a perfect "change of scenery" candidate, especially under Brady's tutelage. If he can play to his full potential and become what he was expected to be when he was drafted with the third overall pick in 2018, then the rest of the NFC South may have some catching up to do.
2021 NFL draft
First round, 8th overall: CB Jaycee Horn, South Carolina
Second round, 59th overall: WR Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU
Third round, 70th overall: OT Brady Christensen, BYU
The general consensus is that Carolina had a fantastic draft. They secured the best cornerback in the draft with Horn, added another weapon for Darnold in Marshall, and added much-needed offensive line depth in Christensen. After investing heavily in their defense through last year's draft, the Panthers' patient approach could pay off. Out of their entire draft class, they may have found three immediate starters. Carolina clearly drafted for need, but were shrewd in their ability to ascertain when to trade back and capitalized on the positions that were deep in the draft.
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There were quite a few fringe and depth-type players that ended up seeing the end of their time with Carolina this offseason. The Panthers most notable losses were on the offensive side of the ball with receivers Curtis Samuel and Pharoh Cooper, plus backup running back Mike Davis, and a number of offensive linemen that made up the majority of their depth. However, Carolina addressed the holes through their key additions through either the draft, free agency or trade
Series History and Preview
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These two NFC South teams go way back. New Orleans and Carolina have met 53 times, including a playoff game (that the Saints won). The series is currently split 28-25 in the Saints' favor. However, New Orleans was able to take both games last season to pull ahead in the overall series record. The Panthers are a notoriously pesky team to play for the Saints, as they almost always play up to their divisional rivals. This season should be no different. With Jameis Winston (likely) leading the charge for New Orleans and Darnold for the Panthers, both of these "new look" teams have a lot to answer for and even more to prove. With the first divisional matchup so early in the season, many of those questions will be answered while the season is still in its infancy. Buckle up.