State of the Franchise: How the Panthers are Looking Heading out of the Bye Week
The Carolina Panthers' 2022 season has been quite a crazy one so far. The team has certainly had its fair share of ups and downs this year. They fired their head coach Matt Rhule after a 1-4 start, letting Steve Wilks take over as the interim coach. They traded away Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson ahead of the deadline. They have also been dealing with a quarterback carousel all season, with Baker Mayfield's injury and inconsistent play leading to PJ Walker and Sam Darnold both putting together some impressive performances, and ultimately to Mayfield getting released. The team has put together some dominant wins, particularly against the Buccaneers and Broncos, and has also had their fair share of embarrassing losses. They don't call the Carolina Panthers the Cardiac Cats for nothing.
This roller coaster of the past few months has left the team with a 4-8 record coming out of the bye week, which would typically mean that the team would be out of playoff contention, but the Panthers are still very much alive in the playoff hunt. Tampa Bay is currently leading the NFC South and are 2 games ahead of the Panthers in the division race at a mediocre 6-6 record after a comeback win against New Orleans on Monday night (Thanks a lot Saints). The Bucs have a tough schedule ahead though as they have to play the 49ers, who are coming off of a dominant win against the Dolphins, next week, and the Bengals, who just beat the Chiefs for the third time in the past year, the week after. The team will then travel to Arizona to face off against the Cardinals before returning home for a potentially pivotal matchup against the Panthers. They will then finish off their regular season by traveling to Altanta to face a feisty Falcons team.
The Buccaneers are likely due for at least a couple more losses with the schedule they have, giving the Panthers an opportunity to play catch up. The team has a relatively easy schedule coming out of the bye. They face the Seahawks, who are 1-2 in their last 3 games, in Seattle this Sunday. This game feels like a must win game if the Panthers want to make a late push for the playoffs. It is Paramount for them to be able to build momentum after a dominant win against the Broncos and an extra week to prepare. Afterwards, the team has two winnable games against the Steelers and Lions before a must win game at the Buccaneers. The team will close out their regular season with what should be an easy win against the Saints. The Panthers will benefit from a favorable schedule to close out the season, giving them hope for a playoff berth.
Carolina can likely only afford to lose 1 game at most in this last stretch of the season. They will need to win at least 2 more games than the Buccaneers to win the division and make the playoffs. Beating the Bucs in week 16 will be especially crucial if the team wants to accomplish this. It is going to be a tough task, but it is certainly possible that the Panthers sneak into the playoffs for the first time since 2017.
The Panthers could very well be in the playoffs come January, but they could also very well finish the season with a top 10 pick in next year's draft. They currently have the 6th pick in the draft, which makes it crazy that they could be contending for a playoff spot right now. If they are unable to make the playoffs, the team will be in prime position to draft a quarterback of the future. Drafting one of the top quarterback such as Bryce Young from Alabama, CJ Stroud from Ohio State, Will Levis from Kentucky or Anthony Richardson from Florida (who just recently declared for the 2023 NFL draft as a sophomore), would certainly be possible with the 6th overall pick. It is a win-win either way; they either make the playoffs and Steve Wilks likely becomes the full time head coach, or they get a new head coach and a top quarterback from the 2023 draft.
Steve Wilks has undoubtedly changed the culture of this organization and locker room. He has given the team the mental toughness and grit that they never had under the Rhule regime. Now he has a chance to earn the head coaching job with the Panthers in this final stretch of the season. The game in Seattle of Sunday could be a turning point for this organization that has been looking more and more like a poverty franchise every since they made their Superbowl appearance in 2015. Time will tell if the team is up for the task of helping to change the direction of this franchise by earning their first playoff berth in 5 years.