Series: The Packers lead 8-4 in a series that dates to 1997. That doesn’t include the first matchup, the 1996 NFC Championship Game, which the Packers won 30-13.
Last time: The Packers hammered the Panthers 38-17 last season for their fourth consecutive victory. The game wasn’t nearly that close. Starting with Jordy Nelson’s 59-yard touchdown catch to open the game, the Packers led 28-0 with 4:07 to play in the first half and 38-3 through three quarters. Green Bay also won in their last trek to Carolina, 30-23, in 2011. In his second career game, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton threw for 432 yards and rushed for 53 more but tossed three interceptions. Charles Woodson had two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Noteworthy: In four seasons, Cam Newton has started 62 of a possible 64 games. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft will continue to be the face of the franchise with a five-year, $103.8 million contract extension that he agreed to in June. That’s the kind of money that goes to elite quarterbacks. Now, Newton needs to perform like he’s actually an elite quarterback. Sure, he led the Panthers to a championship in the down-and-out NFC South, but he needs to get better than last year’s numbers: 58.5 percent, 18 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, with a career-worst 82.1 passer rating and career-high 12 fumbles. For all of his talent, he’s a fundamental disaster, which leads to his erratic accuracy. It’s as if he was so naturally gifted that no one bothered to coach him during his formative years.He’ll have three huge targets in young receivers Kelvin Benjamin (first round, 2014) and Devin Funchess (second round, 2015) and veteran tight end Greg Olsen. That’s 6-foot-5, 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5, respectively, which should give Newton some much-needed margin for error. Will any of that matter considering his horrendous offensive tackles? Michael Oher was signed away from Tennessee to play left tackle. Problem is, he wasn’t any good at right tackle, so how on earth is the figure behind the “Blind Side” going to protect Newton’s blind side? Some fellow named Mike Remmers will play right tackle after Carolina failed to lure away Bryan Bulaga. On the other side of the ball, a strong defense is led by game-changing linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Kuechly might be the NFL’s best defensive player not named J.J. Watt. An above-average defensive line is paced by star Charles Johnson. They let troubled pass rusher Greg Hardy depart and signed ancient cornerback Charles Tillman. They also added Ted Ginn in an effort to upgrade a special teams that battled Green Bay’s for the dishonor of being the worst in the NFL. Ginn’s kickoff-return average ranked below DuJuan Harris.
Offensive rankings: 19th in points (21.2 per game). 16th in yards (346.7 per game). 19th in passing (219.4 per game). 7th in rushing (127.3 per game).
Defensive rankings: 21st in points (23.4 per game). 10th in yards (339.8 per game). 11th in passing (227.8 per game). 16th in rushing (112.0 per game).
2015 Comings and Goings
Draft: Either first-round pick Shaq Thompson will give the Panthers the NFL’s best linebacking corps. Or, at 6 foot and about 230 pounds, the former Washington star will be too small and be a bust. Another boom-or-bust pick was second-round receiver Devin Funchess of Michigan. As with Thompson, who probably should be playing safety, Funchess probably should be playing tight end. He’s a huge target but he’s just so slow. The Panthers gave up their third-round pick to move up in the second to get him, only increasing the risk factor. Fourth-rounder Daryl Williams of Oklahoma might be starting at right tackle sooner than later. With running back DeAngelo Williams’ departure, sixth-rounder Cameron Artis-Payne of Auburn should contribute as the No. 2 behind solid starter Jonathan Stewart.
2015 Personnel in Focus
Pro Football Focus, that is. PFF has a color-coded rankings system for each team’s 24 “starters,” with the extra player to account for a key substitution package such as a third cornerback or third wide receiver. Green Bay has four blue/elite starters (Rodgers, Cobb, Nelson and Sitton), six dark green/high-quality starters (Lang, Lacy, Hayward, Peppers, Daniels and Matthews), four green/good starters (Linsley, Bulaga, Shields and Burnett), six yellow/average starters (Bakhtiari, Quarless, Kuhn, Hyde, Perry and Clinton-Dix) and four orange/below-average starters (Adams, Guion, Raji and Barrington). The Packers don’t have any starters rated poor and they don’t have any rookies projected to be starters.
The Panthers have ...
Blue/elite (2): MLB Luke Kuechly, OLB Thomas Davis.
Dark green/high quality (4): TE Greg Olsen, DE Charles Johnson, DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kawaan Short.
Orange/below average (1): Roman Harper.
Red/Poor (2): LT Michael Oher, DE Wes Horton.
Silver/Not enough information (0): None.
Purple/Rookie (0): None.
QB Cam Newton, on his huge contract: “Nothing about this contract changes my approach to the game. It’s still going to be the person who's willing to win at all costs, but I have to understand what I mean to this team. We always have talks -- coach (Ron) Rivera and I, as well as (general manager Dave) Gettleman -- about playing smart and being smart when I'm on the field. And I feel like I've done a great job to this point and will be more mindful of the hits that I take when running, and make this process go smoothly.”
Coach Ron Rivera, on Newton’s role as a runner: “For the most part, we’re not going to encourage him to do certain things, but we most certainly know that’s part of who he is. I think the big thing we have to do is continue to develop the offense around him more so than anyone else. One of the philosophies when we got him was protect your quarterback and put playmakers around him. I think we’re starting to do that part as far as putting playmakers around him.
CB Josh Norman, on MLB Luke Kuechly, who is due a huge contract extension: “Luke is going to be Luke. His passion for the game is second to none, even in practice. Everything he does is with a pro-like football approach. That’s all you see. He’s getting better and better – although how much better can you get?”Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.