The Carolina Panthers begin their quest for a third consecutive NFC South championship Sunday at the Jacksonville Jaguars.
What needs to happen for the Panthers to make it back to the postseason? Staff writer Max Henson and senior writer Bryan Strickland provide their insight.
NEWTON INCREASES COMPLETION PERCENTAGE: Quarterback Cam Newton has spoken openly about his desire to increase his completion percentage. Newton completed 58.5 percent of his throws last year, and for his career, he averages 59.5 percent. If he can utilize his check-down options more often and get that percentage near 65 or above, Carolina's entire offense will take a step forward. - MH
OFFENSIVE LINE CONTINUES ITS RISE: After a rough start to say the least, the offensive line finished off 2014 in style. Carolina returns four starters from the group that got things going and has added Michael Oher at left tackle. All in all, the line looked good in the preseason. If Jonathan Stewart, the NFL's second-leading rusher over the final five games of 2014, is to keep rolling, he'll need the men up front to start strong. - BS
FUNCHESS MATURES QUICKLY: With No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the year, the Panthers will need second-round draft choice Devin Funchess to play a substantial role. At 6-4, 235 pounds, he has size that no other Carolina receiver can offer. Funchess can become a mismatch. He doesn't need to be Benjamin, but Carolina will need the big target to get on the same page as Newton quickly and emerge as a viable threat to keep defenses honest. - MH
MORE EFFICIENCY IN RED ZONE: The defense allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 63 percent of their red zone chances last season - ranked next-to-last in the NFL, and the offense ranked 27th with touchdowns 46.8 percent of the time. The good news is that just six teams allowed fewer red zone chances than Carolina's defense, while the offense actually ranked 11th in scoring percentage thanks to Graham Gano's leg. But as head coach Ron Rivera is apt to say, you can't win games kicking field goals. - BS
JOHNSON PACES D-LINE: When defensive end Charles Johnson is firing on all cylinders, the Panthers defense is at peak performance. When he's slowed, the entire unit suffers, as we saw at the start of last season. A consistent pass rush sets the table for the entire defense. And a consistently productive Johnson will attract extra attention, allowing other linemen to enjoy one-on-one matchups. - MH
MORE OF THE SAME FROM KUECHLY AND DAVIS: The best linebacker duo in the NFL just needs to keep on keeping on. The Panthers have come to expect elite performances from Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis week in and week out. There's no reason to expect anything less. - MH
SECONDARY PLAYS TO POTENTIAL: General manager Dave Gettleman believes this is the best secondary he's had in Carolina. Experienced veterans like Charles Tillman, Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman are smart and dependable. But young corners Josh Norman and Bene Benwikere have the talent and athleticism to make plays on the ball and take this unit to new heights. - MH
SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES: Special teams miscues cost the Panthers too many times last season. The return of Ted Ginn, Jr. immediately upgrades the return game, but the coverage units were still a work in progress during the preseason. Carolina needs to bury the threat of hidden yardage. - BS