CHARLOTTE - Follow five media outlets throughout the season as their writers update their NFL power rankings, presented by Daimler Trucks North America.
ANALYSIS: "The Panthers have a Christian McCaffrey conundrum. When this season comes to a conclusion, McCaffrey will have missed 23 of 33 games since signing the contract extension that made him the highest-paid running back in NFL history. Unfortunately for his brethren, McCaffrey has become the latest example of why teams paying running backs big money is bad business. McCaffrey will be back next season, but Matt Rhule and the braintrust (minus Joe Brady) will likely use the rest of the season as a barometer in deciding whether Chuba Hubbard is a worthy backup. If you're going to walk the CMC tightrope, you had better have a strong safety net."
ANALYSIS: "Player who must step up: QB Cam Newton
After a storybook beginning to his return to the Panthers, Newton fell flat with arguably the worst performance of his NFL career before the bye. The 32-year-old signal-caller is fighting to prove he deserves a job next season with the Panthers or another team. Do well over the final five games and Carolina could bring him back as the starter. Do poorly and it's hard to imagine any team giving him a chance. That Newton is still learning the system and that the Panthers fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady during the bye complicate the situation. Consistency will be key."
ANALYSIS: "They come off their bye with a new play-caller after they fired offensive coordinator Joe Brady."
ANALYSIS: "It has been a tale of ups and downs for the Carolina Panthers.
Things started off with a bang in 2021, with the Panthers peeling off three straight wins. But as it turned out, those wins had more to do with Carolina's opponents being bad than the team being good. Those three victories were followed by four losses.
Since then, things have gotten that much bumpier. An injured Sam Darnold gave way to P.J. Walker and then Cam Newton under center, and while Newton's return to Charlotte was a fun story, his limitations as a passer became painfully evident. Newton was benched in Week 12 for Walker, but head coach Matt Rhule insisted that Newton will remain the team's starter."
ANALYSIS: "The Panthers have shown flashes this season. But with running back Christian McCaffrey shelved, offensive coordinator Joe Brady fired, quarterback Cam Newton adjusting in his return and games remaining against the Bucs (twice) and Bills, Carolina seems more likely to continue its free fall than to right its season."