Season Preview: Carolina Panthers

Sports Mole previews the upcoming season for the Carolina Panthers as they look to build on their second-placed finish in the NFC South last year.

The Carolina Panthers edged second place in a very tight NFC South last season, finishing above the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers despite each side having a 7-9 record.

The Panthers will be looking to go one better and reach the playoffs this season, but to do so they will have to successfully negotiate a schedule that has been dubbed as the hardest in the league by the NFL's official website.

Here, Sports Mole analyses what chances they have of challenging for top spot in the NFC South.

Head Coach: Ron Rivera

Last Season: 7-9

Review: The Panthers will certainly be hoping to get off to a better start in the upcoming season than they did in the last. A 16-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their opening match was followed by victory over the New Orleans Saints - but that was to be their last win for a while.

Five consecutive defeats followed, leaving them with a record of 1-6 before they pulled off a shock victory over the Washington Redskins in week nine.

The Panthers then picked up just one win in their next four matches, with the 27-21 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs ensuring a third consecutive losing season.

Despite a disappointing campaign, the Panthers rallied in their final four games, winning them all to finish stronger than their NFC South rivals and clinch second place.

Notable Ins

Star Lotulelei: The Panthers' first-round Draft pick saw them go for defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who will come in to strengthen an already-imposing defensive line.

Ted Ginn Jr: In signing Ted Ginn Jr following his release from the San Francisco 49ers, the Panthers have claimed one of the best kickoff returners in the league. It is a vast improvement from last season and will give them a very real threat from the outset.

Notable Outs

Chris Gamble: Chris Gamble's retirement at the age of 30 during the off-season came as something of a surprise, and the Panthers will certainly miss a man who spent his entire career with the franchise. Since being picked in the first round of the 2004 Draft, Gamble has gone on to break the Panthers' franchise records for most interceptions (27) and most passes defended (94).

Rob Chudzinski: As well as losing an important member of their defence, the Panthers also lost offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski this summer when he became the head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Chudzinski played a major role in turning the Panthers' offence from one of the worst in the league to one of the best.

Key Player Offence: Cam Newton

Key Player Defence: Luke Keuchly

Rookie to watch: Star Lotulelei

Pre-season form: 3-1

Prediction: 6-10. In Cam Newton, the Panthers have a quarterback capable of sending them to the playoffs but, once again, they have failed to supply him with adequate weapons. In a division as tight as the NFC South they will fancy their chances of sneaking into the playoffs this season, but they will need to perform like they did at the end of last season rather than how they did at the start. They could finish as high as second, but their most likely position seems to be bottom of the NFC South.

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San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. celebrates after scoring a touchdown on September 11, 2011
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