Carolina blues: How far the mighty Panthers have fallen

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Of every depressing storyline in the NFC South this season, the Carolina Panthers stand out the most.

A quick recap. Last season, the Panthers finished 12-4 and were the two-seed in the playoffs. They had an amazing defense headlined by the Defensive Player of the Year, coached by the Coach of the Year and led by a dual-threat star at quarterback.

So far this season, the defense has given up the most points in the entire stinkin' league. Somehow they are still in contention for the division title, but they haven't won a game in over a month.

Maybe we should have seen a down year coming for Carolina. Over the off-season, the Panthers had their wide receiver and defensive back groups gutted and it's been apparent that they can't replace the production they lost. Kelvin Benjamin has done everything that could be asked of him, especially for being a rookie, but it's clear that he and tight end Greg Olsen are the only capable pass-catchers on the team.

This secondary, however, doesn't have any capable players. Roman Harper is possibly the worst starting safety in the NFL and he showed it again against the Falcons on Week 11. The only position the Panthers aren't struggling with is at linebacker. Reigning DPOY Luke Kuechly is leading the NFL in tackles and fellow 'backer Thomas Davis is having himself a nice season.

Other than that though, this is a far cry from the unit that was second only to the Seahawks in fewest points allowed last season. Carolina gave up 241 points all of last season and it's allowed 300 through 11 weeks this year. That's eight touchdowns and a field goal difference in five less games played.

The defensive line misses Greg Hardy desperately. Hardy played Week 1 but has since been suspended for a domestic violence incident. Simultaneously, Charles Johnson is not being the quarterback's nightmare he was last season. After sacking the QB a total of 22.5 times the past two seasons, Johnson has only managed five this season and has no games with multiple takedowns.

But the Panthers are still in the playoff hunt, so is there hope for this defense?

The Panthers will get an extra week to stew about their bad stretch with a Week 12 bye, but that will also let defensive tackle Star Lotulelei more time to heal his bad ankle. Lotulelei is another player having a down season, and Carolina needs him to be the disruptive force he was as a rookie last year.

Schedule-wise, last year's Panthers would have breezed through this slate of five games. The Panthers have home games against the Buccaneers and Browns and road games against the Vikings, Saints and Falcons left on the docket. Carolina's defense hasn't been able to stop the pass or the run this year, but Minnesota's, Tampa Bay's and Cleveland's offenses don't exactly keep anyone up at night.

Unfortunately, the two most important games left on the schedule, the matchups against the Falcons and Saints, are in the domes. The Panthers have been dreadful on the road, their only away win a 20-14 Week 1 victory against the currently 2-8 Bucs, and if those games have playoff implications and playoff atmospheres, the domes will be tough places to win.

The sad thing about the NFC South is that the Panthers could very likely win one of those Atlanta or New Orleans games, go 7-8-1 and win the division.

Going 7-8-1 would still mean the Panthers have to win four of their final five games. That's a pretty wild thought given how not only the defense has taken three steps back, but the offense has their own splitting headaches as well.

The receivers were mentioned before, but it's not completely their fault that Cam Newton isn't having the big year that was expected of him. Newton's offensive line has looked different almost every game, and no iteration has done a very good job at protecting him. It hasn't shown any signs of improvement either, Newton was sacked nine times against Philadelphia in Week 10.

Newton came into this season with a rib injury, and he just hasn't looked right so far. Newton's passing numbers are down this year across the board, and he's got a bad habit of force feeding Benjamin which has resulted in incompletions and turnovers. Not only that, but Newton's devastating running ability has been basically nonexistent.

The offensive line doesn't give Newton a lot of time to let the play develop before he's walloped by a defensive end, and maybe Newton isn't so willing to risk his body to further injury by running for first downs. Outside of running circles around the Bengals for 107 yards in Week 6, Newton's scrambling ability has been held in check.

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart haven't been a two-headed monster since 2011, and this season has been their worst ever. Williams and Stewart have been either hurt or under-performing all year. The most yards either of the two have rushed for is Stewart's 79 in Week 8.

Again, despite the fact that Carolina has only seen consistent production come from two of their linebackers, their rookie wide receiver and their tight end, it can still win the division and get a home game in the playoffs. The NFC South is some kind of otherworldly plane where logic doesn't apply. It's basically the island from Lost.

The only team in the division with positive net points is New Orleans, but they have looked every bit as disappointing as the Panthers. The Saints are suddenly susceptible at home, their Week 10 and 11 losses both occurred inside the Superdome against two teams mired in their own funks; the 49ers and Bengals.

So even though the Panthers would be out of the discussion in every other division and they don't look like a team that even deserves a shot at the playoffs, here they are. Offseason turnover or not, this is still a team that's one year removed from being one of the best teams in the NFC and whether or not they still have that setting to be switched to remains to be seen.

OK, because it's fun to rag on the NFC South here's one more thing. They are a combined 1-8-1 against AFC opponents this year, with the one non-conference win belonging to the two-win Bucs. There, I said it.

Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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