Carolina Panthers - How will they fair in the NFC South?

NFL SNEAK PEEK: CAROLINA PANTHERS

By all accounts, the Carolina Panthers did very well for themselves in the 2008 season. They won consistently, and in fact never lost two games in a row. They were able to establish a near-dominant running game, and experienced a healthy Jake Delhomme for a change. The Panthers finished the season with a 12-4 record (9-6-1 ATS) and the NFC South title, but the high hopes they had going into the post-season were dashed with a 33-13 loss to Arizona.

Will the same formula work this year for a Panther team that virtually stood pat in the off-season?

Let's take a look at the numbers:

BetUS Sportsbook Odds

To Win NFC South

New Orleans Saints +190

CAROLINA PANTHERS +230

Atlanta Falcons +220

Tampa Bay Buccaneers +450

To Win Super Bowl: +2200

To Win NFC title: +1200

To Reach Conference title game: +450

Over 8.5 wins -105

Under 8.5 wins -125

In this era of pass-happy NFL offenses, where a quarterback seems somehow substandard if he doesn't pass for 3500 yards or completes 65% of his throws, the Carolina Panthers are a notable exception. This is a team that will live and die with the ground game, which is really nothing different from what coach John Fox's basic philosophy has always been.

Developing a running attack that could carry this team to a playoff spot was the rationale in drafting D'Angelo Williams in 2006 and Jonathan Stewart last season. Things came together well, as Williams, a legendary runner at the University of Memphis, broke through with 1515 yards, a 5.5-yard average and 18 touchdowns in his third NFL season, while Stewart had 836 yards as a rookie. The only other NFL team that had a 1-2 punch like that was the New York Giants, who sported two 1000-yard rushers.

The Williams-Stewart combo will once again be the focal point of the Carolina offense, and perhaps the carries between the two will be split a little more evenly this season. Brad Hoover, who is entering his ninth season in Charlotte, will continue to open holes for them from his fullback position. The offensive line, which opened all those holes for the running backs and allowed the immobile Delhomme to be sacked only 20 times, remains intact.

Delhomme is not going to be a high-octane passer, but he's a smart veteran, and he was more than adequate last year, with 59% completions and 3288 yards. His TD-INT ratio was not eye-popping (15-12), and Delhomme had something of a meltdown in the playoff game against Arizona, throwing five interceptions to the future NFC champion Cardinals.

He is fortunate in that he has one of the very best wide receivers in football in Steve Smith, who caught 78 passes for 1421 yards, most of it during double coverage. The Panthers will try to get some more mileage out of Muhsin Muhammad (65 catches in '08) at the other wideout spot, but there is not a lot of depth at the position. The tight ends - Jeff King and Dante Rosario - caught 39 balls between them and do not represent a major headache for defensive coordinators.

Speaking of defense, this is where Carolina sometimes came up short in their 2008 season. The Panthers allowed almost 21 points a game, which is too much to suit Fox, a former defensive coordinator with the Giants. The best player on that unit, Julius Peppers, expressed that he wanted out in the off-season, seeking a lucrative long-term deal, but he got the franchise tag instead. Rumors are still swirling that he'll be dealt somewhere, but as long as he is in Charlotte, this Pro Bowler who scored 14.5 sacks last year can be a disruptive force - for the opposition, that is. He may get a hand from FSU's Everette Brown, who was taken with one of Carolina's two second-round draft selections.

Middle linebacker Jon Beason is one of the best at his position. He had more solo tackles last season (110) than anybody in the league. Richard Marshall had 68 tackles from his cornerback spot and will be a full-time starter for the first time. This secondary was somewhat disappointing in the second half of the season, and there were no significant additions to the rotation, aside from second-round draft choice Sherrod Martin.

Sure, there are holes in Carolina, but the fundamentals are not bad. This is a team that can control the ball on the ground, with either of its running backs, has the capacity to minimize mistakes, gets big plays from a star wide receiver and can get after the passer. On an overall basis, they are more solid than New Orleans, and if they stay relatively healthy, they will compete with Atlanta for the division title. I consider OVER 8.5 wins, at -105 in the BetUS NFL football futures betting odds, to be a virtual certainty.