A solid start to the 2018 NFL campaign places Carolina squarely in the hunt for a playoff spot in an incredibly competitive NFC South. After a good start in the pre-season and a few solid performances in the last two months vs. tough and in shape opponents, NFL futures show the Panthers as sleepers to win the Super Bowl in 2019, according to odds research from BeABettorBetter.com.

A 6-3 record as of November 8, 2018, reveals plenty of room to grow for Coach Rivera’s crew for the rest of the 2018 season. We look at the good, the bad and the ugly as the Carolina Panthers enter a long dogfight for the postseason.

The Good: Panthers Know How To Dominate The Ground Game

If Carolina comes across as a bit old school, that’s because their strengths revolve around a bygone era of gridiron football. The Panthers bring a rare mix of speed and physicality across the lineup, creating a brutal, grinding presence in rushing scenarios.

Offensively, the Panthers feature one of the most dynamic backfields in the NFL with QB Cam Newton and RB Christian McCaffrey averaging 111.4 yards per game in rushing yards. After six games, the Panthers have the third-best rushing average with 139.4 yards per game, behind the Cowboys and the NFL-best Rams.

The rush helps to consume minutes and dominate possession, slowly fatiguing opposing defenses. As such, the Panthers tend to avoid blowout results, fighting to stay close in the majority of matchups. A week six loss in Washington featured a puzzling lack of rushing – only 81 yards on 18 attempts. Newton threw for 275 yards and a pair of TDs, but couldn’t make up for the lack of production on the ground.

As long as the Panthers return to a run-dominant offense punctuated by smart play-action passing and the occasional risk downfield, opposing teams will dread lining up against Carolina’s attack.

Carolina Panthers Cam Newton

The Bad: Inconsistent Defense Needs Adjusting

At first glance, a top ten defense in terms of points per game allowed doesn’t seem too bad, but the Panthers have played with fire all season. Carolina allows 358 yards per game, 15th in the NFL, including 255.6 passing yards per game and 102.4 rushing yards per game. Last season, the defense allowed 229.1 passing yards and 88.1 rushing yards per game, totaling 40.9 fewer yards per game.

An increase in passing yards allowed matches the overall trend of an NFL which severely penalizes quarterback hits and wide receiver interference. A sharp, 16% rise in rushing yards allowed combined with additional passing yards will be an unsustainable trend over an entire season, if the Panthers expect to keep winning.

So far, Carolina’s won the turnover game, emerging with a few vital, drive-killing turnovers which kept additional points off the board. Over the long run, the defense needs to start limiting yardage to stay within the top ten of points allowed in the NFL.

The Ugly: Converting Under Pressure A Must

Cam enjoyed a solid game in week six, but a disappointing end to a potential game-winning drive had Panthers fans shaking their heads. Cam missed three throws in a row to finish week six, despite a wide-open Greg Olsen available as a target in two of the final three possessions. Sure, Olsen and Newton may require another week to reestablish a connection, but the overall trend of poor conversion under pressure dogs Carolina in 2018.

The Panthers rank among the bottom of all offenses in first down production, converting on a mere 34.5% of third downs. When Coach Rivera rolls the dice on fourth down, Carolina converted on only two of five opportunities. Moving the chains consistently is a hallmark of any consistent offense. Big plays are always welcome, but can’t be counted upon in tight contests.

In some cases, the inability to capture first downs in pressure situations may be blamed on a failure to execute. However, attempting to call long gain plays in medium yard third down situations hasn’t worked out either. Throwing 20 yards downfield on a 3rd-and-four when a quick dump-off to Christian McCaffery would secure the down creates pointless complexity.

Tough Schedule Will Challenge Panthers In 2018

Carolina has taken care of business at home to begin the 2018 regular season, defeating the Buccaneers, Ravens, Cowboys, Bengals, and Giants. The Panthers demons emerge on the road, allowing 170 yards of rushing to the Falcons in Atlanta and 132 yards last week in Washington.

Atlanta won by a converted TD while Washington won by a pair of field goals. Carolina remains competitive through these lapses, a good sign for a team attempting to accelerate into a long battle for an NFL playoff spot. A break or two in either game could’ve resulted in a 4-1 record, along with a tie for top spot in the NFC South with the Saints.

The Panthers could’ve used an extra win, because the schedule turns brutal for the rest of the campaign, including away games in Philadelphia and New Orleans, along with a Thursday Night Football matchup in Pittsburgh on three days rest. Detroit, Cleveland, and Tampa Bay comprise the remaining away games, with none of the clubs offering easy wins in 2018.

Carolina’s home schedule isn’t a cakewalk either. The Ravens, Saints, and Falcons will challenge the Panthers, especially towards the end of the season when New Orleans and Atlanta fight for division supremacy at the end of the regular season. Seattle’s defense is never fun to host and the Buccaneers will give no ground in a vital divisional matchup.

A return to full health for Greg Olsen and the thawing of safety Eric Reid should provide a boost to the lineup, improving performance on both sides of the ball. Panthers coaches also need to maximize decision-making, giving the offense a shot at dominating possession and giving the defense a rest. Carolina will remain in the running for the postseason, barring a complete, unexpected collapse.