Superbowl Sleeper: Carolina Panthers

Cam Newton was dominant in 2011 ( Source: Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

The Superbowl Sleeper series is a look at five teams that finished below .500 in 2011 (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Carolina Panthers, and the Buffalo Bills) what it would take for them to get to the Superbowl in 2012.

What happened in 2011?

Quarterback Cam Newton took the league by storm, producing one of the best rookie campaigns in NFL history.  Unfortunately for the Panthers, the defense was no where near as productive.   Injuries to linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis along with a poor pass rush led to the Panthers giving up 429 points and a 6-10 record.

The Good

Of course this starts with Cam Newton.  His development as a passer exceed expectations and he transformed Carolina into one of the more explosive offenses in the league.  The Panthers also have playmakers at the skill positions, featuring the fleet footed Steve Smith, pass catching tight end Greg Olson and the explosive running back duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart.

The Bad

There are question marks throughout the defense.  Can Beason and Davis get healthy and regain their old form? Is the front seven strong enough to stop the run? Will someone other than Charles Johnson provide a pass rush?

Blueprint to get to the Superbowl

Cam Newton continues his development by cutting down on his turnovers.  Steve Smith shows he is still a top flight receiver, the running game provides balance and the defense improves from terrible to average.

Outlook

The New York Giants showed that a team can win the Superbowl despite an inconsistent defense if you have a top quarterback,  can create mismatches on the outside, and if you get hot at the right time.  Carolina has the weapons on offense and the potential to be good enough on defense.  Look for Carolina to be the Wildcard team nobody wants to play and a legit Superbowl contender.

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