Any team can beat any other team in the NFL. Especially on opening day. No team or fanbase should be particularly overconfident.
With that said, the Jaguars couldn't have hand-picked a much better NFC South opponent for their opener.
Sure, the Carolina Panthers have won their division for two consecutive years and they even won a playoff game last season, sorta (it was against a team quarterbacked by Ryan Lindley).
The Panthers have one of the most dynamic athletes the NFL has ever seen touching the ball on every snap in Cam Newton, but not a whole bunch else.
Despite being a phenomenal athlete, Newton still struggles with throwing mechanics and seemingly makes as many "wow" bad plays as he does "wow" good ones.
"He fits our system, our system fits him, he does a lot of nice things with what we need to do," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of his quarterback. "I’m very pleased with the way he came back last year after the accident. He handled that situation nicely. He got us into the playoffs, got us into our first playoff win in several years so very pleased with who he is for us.”
Most of his damage is done with his legs, and the Jaguars have linebackers Telvin Smith and Dan Skuta who won't match up with Newton athletically (nobody does), but they can be a legitimate spy and can get him to the ground.
“I think we have a tackling plan for everybody," Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said. "Every team we play you look at the running back and the running styles and then you devise a plan based on that. If they’ve got two or three running backs you have a plan for all of them. It’s not that it changes, you’re looking at their running style. What’s unique this game is Cam Newton you have to take a look at because he is a quarterback that will pull it and run and he’s a big body-type quarterback that you better have a plan for him.”
In the passing game, the Panthers have a singular threat in tight end Greg Olsen.
“I think you have to have great awareness of where he’s at," Bradley said of Olsen. "I think there was a game, the third preseason game in the first half he was targeted nine times, and he should be. He’s a very good player. Even without the injury he would be a guy that we need to be aware of, where he is on the field and how they’re going to utilize him. They do a good job of moving him around, putting him in different positions and looking for matchups. So I think we have to have greater awareness without getting out of what we do as well.”
If the Jaguars are "aware" of where Olsen is at all times and dedicate one or more men to covering him, the rest of the secondary should be able to match up with anyone else on the Panthers offense.
The Panthers will certainly try to run the football, but the talent on their offensive line and backfield can only be considered pedestrian by NFL standards. Jonathan Stewart is the "bell cow" in that backfield, but he's hardly the player that he used to be.
“I think the biggest thing for us is we’re hoping to get the guy that finished the season for us last year. In the last six games he had a really nice run for us right into the playoffs. He played very well," Rivera said of Stewart. "We rushed for over a hundred yards over the last six games each game and we had a lot of success so we’d love to see him pick up right where he left off. DeAngelo didn’t get an opportunity to play at the end coming off an injury like he did and Johnathan was rolling so we really didn’t want to take Johnathan off the field. Again, we’re looking for that guy. We feel real good about the whole group as a unit. I like who Michael Tolbert is for us being a multi-faceted back, I like Fozzy Whittaker is an explosive young man, and we’ve got Cameron Artis-Payne and Brandon Wegher who are two young guys that we think they can add something special with what we’re trying to do.”
Defensively, the Panthers are banged up already and their only real impact player is linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is one of the best in the world. The Jaguars offensive line should hold up in pass protection and they will have a chance to make plays in the passing game.
To put it simply, for a team that has won just seven games in two seasons, they have every reason to believe they can beat a two-time defending division champ on opening day.
A victory on Sunday will go a long way in boosting the team's confidence throughout the rest of the season.