Path to Super Bowl LII: The Panthers have to solve the Saints in order to start their road back to the Super Bowl.
They went 0-2 against New Orleans this season. But if they beat them this time, they will travel to either Philadelphia or Minnesota in the divisional round. (To Philadelphia if the Rams beat the Falcons, to Minnesota if the Falcons beat the Rams.) Win that, and the Panthers would land in an NFC Championship Game against either the Eagles, Vikings, Rams or Falcons. The only way that game would be at home is if it were against the Falcons.
Reason for hope: The Panthers know the way to the Super Bowl as well as anyone in this field, having reached the big game two years ago. There has been a lot of turnover since then, but quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly are the team leaders and all were part of that run. That 2015 Carolina team was a front-runner that went 15-1 and didn’t confront much adversity until the Super Bowl, when it crumbled. This Carolina team has overcome a lot and shown a seasoned contender’s ability to thrive under difficult circumstances.
Reason for concern: The passing game. The Panthers entered Sunday’s regular-season finale ranked 27th in the league with 194.4 passing yards per game and 21st at 6.24 yards per pass attempt. They win with their run game and their fearsome front seven, and Newton’s ability to make plays with his legs when things break down is a big part of what they do. When they do throw it, it’s often short to dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey. But with Kelvin Benjamin shipped off to Buffalo, Curtis Samuel injured and Devin Funchess playing hurt, there aren’t many downfield weapons for Newton in a league that tends to require one or two of those in big games.
What America saw last weekend from the Atlanta Falcons was similar to what the team showed for 2? quarters of last year’s Super Bowl.
Can they keep it up as they head on the road again Saturday to Philadelphia?
The Falcons have that balanced offense — if Matt Ryan is efficient — to challenge any opponents. Where they made their mark against the Rams was on defense.
We don’t have a (complicated) defense, but we are very detailed, says defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel, a former NFL player who got the job last February. And the detail of expectations of understanding that they have to make our defense come to life, and they’re doing an awesome job at it.
Philadelphia’s defense has been up and down recently, and it has dealt with a bunch of injuries. Depth has been a plus for Jim Schwartz’s unit.
The edge here belongs to Atlanta at quarterback — if Ryan is efficient — with backup Nick Foles running the offense for the Eagles. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Foles fly. Or struggle.