Carolina Panthers carry momentum into 2013

Strong finish good sign for next season
Dec. 31, 2012 @ 03:30 PM

The Carolina Panthers ended 2012 with four straight wins, giving their fans reason to feel optimistic heading into the offseason.
They scored a season-high 44 in a six-point win at New Orleans on Sunday, even though four of the starting offensive linemen entered the season as backups.
Carolina went 6-3 the last two months of the year, with wins over playoff teams Atlanta and Washington, and finished 7-9.
To be a playoff team next season, the Panthers must find a way to win close games; they went 0-6 in games decided by six points or less before Sunday’s win.
Multiple sources are reporting coach Ron Rivera is losing his job after two seasons. Rivera, who has a 13-19 record, can look back on the club’s failure in close games. Carolina is 2-11 in games determined by seven points or less under Rivera, who never contended for the postseason because of 1-5 starts.
The Panthers were one of nine teams to finish 4-1 or 5-0, but it wasn’t enough for ownership.
The new leadership is taking over a program with some momentum. The Panthers won five of their last six, with the only loss being against Denver — the top seed in the AFC.

Loaded on offense
Carolina will be difficult to defend as long as Cam Newton is taking the snaps.
Newton is still evolving as a passer, but he’s remarkable with his feet. In addition to his 3,889 passing yards, he led the team in rushing (741).
DeAngelo Williams, coming off a team-record 210 yards on 21 attempts against the Saints, needs 15-plus carries to be effective.
Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been splitting carries when both are healthy, but it wasn’t effective in 2012.
Stewart is expendable, given the versatility of 250-pound running back Mike Tolbert.
If Carolina could trade Stewart for a proven receiver, that would be ideal.
Steve Smith, who turns 34 in May, still has something left in the tank. He finished with 1,174 receiving yards, and tight end Greg Olsen (843) was a solid No. 2 target.
But Carolina’s passing game lacked explosion, and didn’t do enough to stretch the field.
Olsen led the team in touchdown receptions with five, while their top three receivers — Smith, Brandon LaFell and Louis Murphy — combined for just nine TDs.
Carolina doesn’t need to address the offensive backfield, but adding a playmaking receiver is a must.
The Panthers also need to upgrade up front.
Left tackle Jordan Gross was the only legitimate starter on the offensive line at the end of the year.
Getting Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil back will make a big difference, but the Panthers need to spend an early draft pick on the O-line.

Budding defense
Luke Kuechly was one of the best linebackers in the NFL as a rookie this season.
Kuechly led the NFL in tackles with 164 — 15 more than any other defender — and he’s also excellent in pass coverage (two interceptions, eight pass deflections).
Thomas Davis is a remarkable story, playing at a high level despite three ACL injuries during his pro career.
Despite his setbacks, Davis is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. His 103 tackles ranked second on the team.
If Jon Beason returns to form, the Panthers could have one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL.
Carolina will also welcome back corner Chris Gamble, who has 27 career interceptions.
The Panthers’ secondary had just seven interceptions combined, but the unit benefitted from a great pass rush.
Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks) and Greg Hardy (11 sacks) give Carolina Pro Bowl talent on both ends of the line.
Carolina’s first pick on defense will probably be spent on a ball-hawking safety or a run-stuffing defensive tackle.
The defense lost six starters to injury during the season, but made a lot of progress and developed some depth in the second half.
With a little tweaking, the Panthers can field a playoff-caliber defense.