Did you know that entering last season, no team had ever repeated as the NFC South champion? That's hard to believe, I know. I gave the Carolina Panthers little shot to repeat in 2015 but they did -- albeit with a 7-8-1 record (it was 3-8-1 at one point). The Cats also became the first to win the South four times. Each of the other three teams in the division -- Atlanta, New Orleans and Tampa Bay -- have won it three times.
I'm not sure you can win a Super Bowl with Cam Newton as your starting quarterback, but you also would be hard-pressed to find too many better than the former Heisman winner. So it was a no-brainer that the Panthers gave Newton a five-year, $103.8 million extension last month with $60 million guaranteed. That contract, at least temporarily, makes Newton the third-highest-paid quarterback in the NFL based on an average salary of $20.76 million a year. He's obviously not a Top 3 quarterback -- Top 3 athlete at the position, sure. Newton's record is a mediocre 30-31-1 overall and he's 1-2 in the postseason. He does have the most rushing yards (2,571) by a quarterback in his first four NFL seasons during the Super Bowl era. His 33 rushing touchdowns are the most by a quarterback since 2011.
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Carolina was 3-4-1 on the road last season, 4-4 against the spread and 6-2 "over/under." The Panthers' 2015 road schedule ranks as the second-easiest in the NFL with an opponents' combined 2014 winning percentage of .391. That's obviously helped by playing three road games inside the putrid division. Only Atlanta's is easier.
Here's the schedule with very early (opponent) odds.
Sept. 13 -- at Jaguars (+4): If you are going to open on the road, you probably can't ask for a better opponent than sad-sack Jacksonville. There might be as many Panthers fans there. It's the first meeting between the franchises since Newton's rookie season in 2011, a 16-10 Panthers win. They will win here too. Key trend: Panthers 5-5 ATS in past 10 as a road favorite of at least 4 points.
Oct. 4 -- at Buccaneers (+2.5): This follows a two-game homestand for Carolina against Houston and then New Orleans. Tampa is off a trip to Houston in Week 3. The Panthers will be kicking themselves if they don't start 2-0 on the road considering the Bucs were even worse than the Jaguars in 2014. Carolina won in Tampa 20-14 in Week 1 last season. Newton missed the game due to injury, and backup Derek Anderson threw two touchdown passes. It was Anderson's first start since 2010. Newton had started 48 straight games. Panthers win here. Key trend: Panthers 4-3 ATS as road favorite in series.
Oct. 18 -- at Seahawks (-8): Carolina is off its bye week, while Seattle is off a game in Cincinnati in Week 5. Of course, the Panthers played in Seattle in the divisional round of last year's playoffs and lost 31-17. The Panthers were down 14 but driving deep in Seattle territory in the fourth quarter when Newton was picked off by Kam Chancellor, who returned it 90 yards for a touchdown. Newton threw a pair of touchdowns to Kelvin Benjamin, but Carolina couldn't overcome three turnovers. Carolina was trying to be the first team to reach a conference championship game after having a losing record in the regular season. Panthers lose this one. Key trend: Panthers have lost four straight (not covering any) after a bye (any location).
Nov. 15 -- at Titans (+2.5): This absolutely screams trap game to me as Carolina is off a very tough three-game homestand against Philly, Indianapolis and Green Bay, three likely playoff teams. Plus, two of those are in primetime. Tennessee is off a trip to New Orleans and easily could still be winless here. Matchup of Heisman winners in Newton and Titans rookie Marcus Mariota. Only Carolina's second-ever trip to Nashville. Panthers win -- barely. Key trend: Panthers 5-5 ATS in past 10 on road vs. AFC.
Nov. 26 -- at Cowboys (-4.5): Thanksgiving game. Carolina is off a home game vs. Washington in Week 11, while Dallas is in Miami the previous Sunday. The Cowboys signed former Panthers star defensive end Greg Hardy this offseason. This was to be Hardy's first game of the season off a 10-game suspension, but an arbitrator recently cut that down to four. Carolina has lost five straight to Dallas, last in 2012. Panthers lose here as well. Key trend: Panthers 7-3 ATS in past 10 as a road dog of at least 4.5 points.
Dec. 6 -- at Saints (-2): Slight advantage for Carolina as it gets those few extra days to prepare for Drew Brees and Co. off that Turkey Day game. New Orleans is in Houston in Week 12. Carolina played maybe its best game of the season in New Orleans in Week 14 last year, a 41-10 rout that started the season-ending four-game winning streak. Newton threw for 226 yards and three touchdowns and also rushed for 83 yards and a score. Carolina had 497 yards of offense. Panthers lose this one. Key trend: Panthers 8-2 ATS in past 10 as road dog in series.
Dec. 20 -- at Giants (-2): Carolina is off a potentially big home game vs. Atlanta in Week 14, while New York is on a short week, visiting Miami on Monday night. Of course, a matchup of former No. 1 overall picks here in Newton and Eli Manning. Teams last met in Charlotte in 2013, a 38-0 Panthers blowout win. I remember thinking Giants coach Tom Coughlin might get fired the next day. Panthers lose here. Key trend: Panthers 4-6 ATS in past 10 at NFC East.
Dec. 27 -- at Falcons (-1): Interesting that Carolina and Atlanta play again in the span of just 14 days. The Falcons are off a Week 15 trip to Jacksonville. The Panthers won the NFC South with a shockingly easy 34-3 rout in Atlanta to close last regular season. Roman Harper and Tre Boston returned interceptions for touchdowns and Carolina recorded six sacks. Newton completed 10 of 16 passes for 114 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ed Dickson in the first quarter. Newton also had a 4-yard scoring run. That loss would lead to Atlanta firing Coach Mike Smith. Panthers lose this one. Key trend: Panthers 3-6-1 ATS in past 10 as road dog in series.
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