ANALYSIS: "The Panthers hit their Week 13 bye short on wins, but still feeling like an organization that is laying the foundation for a better tomorrow. A key pillar on defense is unquestionably safety Jeremy Chinn, who last week was named Defensive Rookie of the Month, the second consecutive month he's earned that honor. That should all but lock up Defensive Rookie of the Year honors for the second-round pick, who has recorded 87 total tackles, an interception, five passes defensed, a forced fumble and two fumble returns for touchdowns. Those two scores came on successive plays from scrimmage in Week 12's one-point loss to the Vikings. He plays a different position, but the Panthers have found a playmaking successor to Luke Kuechly on their defense."
ANALYSIS: "Person with most at stake: QB Teddy Bridgewater
If he really is the "franchise quarterback" that OC Joe Brady called him, Bridgewater needs to prove he can win big games. Otherwise, with a top-10 pick, at minimum, Carolina likely will be in position to draft a franchise QB in the first round to continue its youth movement. The team can't move on from Bridgewater in 2021 based on the way his contract is structured; there would be $27 million in dead money. But if you spend a top-10 pick on a QB, the handwriting is on the wall for 2022."
ANALYSIS: "They come off their bye playing the final four games to get better for the future. There is a lot to like going forward."
ANALYSIS: "After losing six of their past seven games, the Carolina Panthers are a 4-8 team playing out the string. As a result, some believe they should just shut down star running back Christian McCaffrey, who has missed most of the season with ankle and shoulder injuries.
However, McCaffrey is expected to return Sunday against the Denver Broncos, according to ESPN's David Newton.
"He's a top-five NFL player," head coach Matt Rhule told reporters last week. "With your best players, you feel great about your chances of winning. ... You add Christian to the mix, he's a fantastic player, he brings a lot to the table, he creates matchups, he allows you to be creative."
There's no question that McCaffrey will make the Panthers a more dangerous spoiler down the stretch. They're averaging 3.6 more points per game, 5.2 more first downs, 82.4 more yards from scrimmage and 0.9 more touchdowns with him, per Newton.
Those numbers make a difference, especially considering Carolina has lost four games by four points or fewer."