I keep trying to convince myself that I’m wrong about the Carolina Panthers.
But I just can’t do it.
With reigning MVP quarterback Cam Newton and All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly leading the way, the Panthers are poised to become the first Super Bowl loser in 23 years to return to the big game in the following season.
Not only do I believe they’ll do that, I’m picking the Panthers to win their first Super Bowl in franchise history on Feb. 5, 2017 against the New England Patriots.
After finishing the regular season with a 15-1 mark last year, I’m predicting the Panthers to finish 12-4 this season en route to claiming a fourth straight NFC South crown.
There will be bumps along the way, with adversity rearing its ugly head at times, but a healthy squad featuring nine Pro Bowlers from last year’s team is impossible to ignore.
The Panthers led the NFL in total points last season and now have Kelvin Benjamin back at wide receiver, as well as a much-improved Devin Funchess, Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen and deep threat Ted Ginn Jr.
The biggest current question mark is the secondary, where the Panthers let Pro Bowler Josh Norman walk, placing a pair of rookie cornerbacks — James Bradberry and Daryl Worley — in key roles ahead of the season opener in Denver on Thursday.
Despite the changes in the secondary, I expect the Panthers to survive the growing pains by depending on a dominant linebacking corps — Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Shaq Thompson — and strong defensive line anchored by Kawann Short.
What I don’t expect is another season of flirting with perfection. I see as many as four potential pitfalls on the Panthers’ schedule. Including the season opener against the Super Bowl champion Broncos, Carolina is set to play six playoff teams from last season.
Among the toughest games on the schedule are trips to Oakland and Seattle, and an NFC Championship rematch against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.
So who presents the biggest challenge to the Panthers in their quest for a second straight NFC Championship? It’s tempting to pick the consistent Seahawks or the talented Cardinals, but I’m going with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.
With arguably the easiest schedule in the NFL, Green Bay has the best chance to earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, presenting the Panthers with a daunting — and cold — challenge at Lambeau Field in January.
But led by head coach Ron Rivera, the two-time NFL Coach of the Year, I still believe the Panthers find a way to play their best when it counts the most, taking lessons from last year’s Super Bowl loss.
It’s all set up for a storybook ending at Super Bowl LI in Houston, the site of the Panthers’ first Super Bowl appearance where Adam Vinatieri split the uprights to give the Patriots a 32-29 win over Carolina in 2004.
The significance of No. 51 also weighs heavily on my mind as the road to the 51st Super Bowl begins. The number represents Sam Mills, a cornerstone figure for the Panthers organization who coined — and lived — the phrase, “Keep Pounding.” I have to believe that will add an extra level of motivation to the boys clad in blue and black.
So yes, barring significant injuries, the Panthers will be the ones racing to snag a championship t-shirt and hat in February. This time around, Tom Brady will be walking off the field as Panthers owner Jerry Richardson raises the Lombardi Trophy on stage with Panthers’ veteran Thomas Davis by his side.
This time, for the first time, the Carolina Panthers will be Super Bowl Champions.