While the Panthers may not have won their game in convincing fashion, it was certainly done in, shall we say, reassuring fashion. The defense in particular played well as a unit and newcomer Lamar Smith looks to ease the sting of rookie DeShaun Foster's injury over the next few weeks. The offense still has questions with its receiving corps, but pass protection was good, Rodney Peete played well in his caretaker role, and most importantly, there were no silly turnovers or penalties.
After one week of play, it may seem premature to overanalyze, but with the amount of turnover in the NFC South, this Sunday's games were so revealing, it is difficult not to start eying the Panthers' competitors. So far, here is how they stack up.
Atlanta: Michael Vick is quickly joining the ranks of a select few players who are simply from a different planet. His running posterized several Green Bay defenders, while some of his throws would have made Dan Marino envious. The scary thing is, if he is this good now, how much better will he be when he plays the Panthers in week 12? Next time, Brian Finneran won't drop that pass, and next time, Vick will put more touch on that toss to Reggie Kelly.
Fortunately, though, the Falcons do not appear to have too many strengths which match up with Carolina's weaknesses. Wide receiver is a very shaky proposition, and although Willie Jackson is decent, he is a career #2, and by week 7, Terry Fair should be ready to run with him and contain him. They also, along with the Ravens, gave proof positive that a 3-4 alignment is not a universal panacea. Atlanta's LBs seemed a half-step behind Ahman Green all day, a fact that Coach Fox will certainly notice when DeShaun Foster is back.
Tampa Bay: For all the talk about how Jon Gruden would miss Tim Brown, Jerry Rice, and Rich Gannon, it appears as though Bill Callahan will be the man he could use most. Brad Johnson will take some time to learn the scheme, but he is a former Pro Bowl quarterback and has some good offensive talent to work with. The real issue is pass protection. Their tackles looked sluggish and sloppy in their technique, while Casey Coleman is missed at the ROG spot. Callahan was a miracle worker in Oakland, transforming a sieve that gave up 67 sacks in 1998 into a mauling group that surrendered only 28 by 2000. If the light goes on for Julius Peppers, and Mike Rucker and a fast linebacking group can cover some ground in blitz packages, Carolina will have a chance.
However, this will be a difficult matchup on many other levels for Carolina. The Bucs feature four big receivers and an underrated tight end who will have a good chance of brutalizing Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard. As we all know, their defense can also be top-notch when 11 men stay focused. Rodney Peete will have a difficult time matching Johnson play-for-play.
New Orleans: They looked impressive in beating Gruden's Bucs after a slew of free-agent losses. This team may end up being the biggest question mark in the division, but perhaps that is because I do not have faith in them showing consistency in certain areas all season. Aaron Brooks looked good, but he was hit-or-miss for a good portion of last year. The offensive line held their own, but with Kyle Turley switching sides and Willie Roaf gone, this could be a mirage. Donte Stallworth made a huge TD catch, but rookies WRs typically have growing pains and the Saints will miss Willie Jackson. The defensive line was surprisingly solid, but can they offset the losses of La'Roi Glover and Joe Johnson down the stretch run? Major, major questions…
The bottom line: It will be a difficult division for Carolina to win in. Atlanta and New Orleans looked much better than expected, while Tampa is still the favorite to take the NFC South once their new players gel. However, each has enough glaring weaknesses and will suffer enough growing pains that they can be taken by surprise. A 3-3 record would be a huge step in the right direction.
Outside the division opponents: Green Bay looks as strong as ever, and the Bears look like a very gritty team. The Browns also showed impressive young talent behind Kelly Holcomb (?!?). However, it looks as though most of the non-conference schedule will feature winnable games. Dallas seems to have taken a step backwards, getting spanked by the expansion Texans. There are more than a few NCAA schools Quincy Carter could not start for. The Bengals looked as inept as ever against a one-dimensional Chargers team, while Kordell Stewart and the Steelers were downright awful Monday night. Look for the Panthers to steal a few.