Do you think
Kuechly has to be right at the top of the list. The second-year linebacker ranked fourth in the NFL with 156 tackles (he had 176 based on coaches' film review) and also recorded four interceptions. He's the centerpiece for one of the top two defenses in the league, and in the Panthers' biggest game of the year – and one of the biggest in the NFL – he produced 24 tackles based on press box stats in a crucial victory over New Orleans.
There are plenty of strong candidates, of course. The league's other dominant defense – the Seattle Seahawks unit – has two potential winners in safety Earl Thomas and cornerback Richard Sherman. The sacking Roberts - Quinn for the St. Louis Rams and Mathis for the Indianapolis Colts – can make cases. Same for Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who led the league with 171 tackles. And don't forget about 2012 winner J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans.
Kuechly isn't one to lose sleep over awards, and that's a good thing because it will be awhile before the winner is announced. All of the league's major awards will be handed out on the eve of the Super Bowl (Feb. 1) at the NFL Honors show. The defensive award, presented by the Associated Press, is selected by a panel of 50 football analysts.
Does Ron Rivera have a good chance of being named NFL Coach of the Year? – David in Concord, N.C.
More often than not, this award goes to the coach whose team most exceeded expectations, and that's a win-win for Rivera's hopes. First of all, few picked the Panthers to win the NFC South. To boot, fewer still thought it was possible after Carolina lost three of its first four games – only to go 11-1 from there.
First-year coach Chip Kelly turned the Philadelphia Eagles from a 4-12 team into NFC East champs. Former Eagles coach Andy Reid, in his first season in Kansas City, took the Chiefs from 2-14 to 11-5, though they did lose five of their last seven games. Last year's coach of the year, Bruce Arians, took over an Arizona Cardinals team coming off a 5-11 season and helped it go 10-6.
But Rivera's team finished with a better record than those teams – a better record than all but two NFL teams, in fact.
Unless I'm mistaken, I believe the Panthers are 0-3 in games coming off a bye since Rivera took over. Will that come back to haunt us? – Timothy in Manhattan, Kan.
You are correct about those past struggles, but I believe they are in the past.
Those regular season showings after byes mystified the coaching staff, but they're such a small sample size that I wouldn't put too much stock in them. Plus, this bye comes before the franchise's first playoff game in five years – the first playoff game for 32 of the 53 players on the roster. Do you think they're going to come out flat?
Of course, there's always the debate over whether a team coming off a bye will be rusty, one that inevitably is "proven to be true" when a bye team goes bye-bye. Teams coming off playoff byes are 24-16 over the last 10 years, a record that seems about right to me given the quality of teams typically left at that point.
The Panthers have altered their bye-week schedule some, including having practice on Friday and a short work day Saturday. It seems like a smart move, but I don't think it will be the difference between winning and losing.
"Every bye is a little bit different," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "I know this: We've got to come out playing our best football. We're fortunate to have a home playoff game. I can't wait to see the excitement in the stands and around the community. It's great for our players and for the organization."
I really enjoyed the inside access segment that Max did for the defense. Could he please do one for offense and special teams as well? – Avery in Bowie, Md.
This question obviously came in before this was posted, but it's an opportunity to remind people of Max's behind-the-scenes look at offensive meetings leading up to the Falcons game. A must-read.
Dear Panthers website, I just wanted to let you guys know how proud I am of this team. Since the Super Bowl season I've been following and supporting these cardiac cats, doing it from the other side of the Atlantic. Just keep up this spirit and power, and win or lose, I shall remain a great fan! Best regards. – Ruben in Bussum, The Netherlands
Did you take part in the annual "Nieuwejaarsduik" on New Year's Day, where thousands of Dutch voluntarily dive into the icy North Sea for no apparent reason? Not exactly my cup of iced tea, but if you did dive right in, I hope you wore a pair of Pantheroos. Keep pounding!