Baker Mayfield and the Carolina Panthers Are Still a Lock to Make the Playoffs Despite a Disappointing Week 1

Baker Mayfield’s revenge game against the Cleveland Browns didn’t go according to plan. He and the Carolina Panthers offense looked out of sync for most of the contest, which featured of five fumbles, four sacks, one interception, and multiple batted passes.

Nevertheless, Mayfield still managed to erase a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit to take the lead late before Cade York ultimately spoiled the comeback with a 58-yard, game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

Carolina starts the new season 0-1 for the third time in four years. Unlike in the past, however, there’s a new sense of urgency surrounding this year’s squad where both players and coaches are on the hot seat. The Panthers have upgraded their roster immensely this offseason. Combine that with a favorable schedule, and they are still in a great position to make the playoffs.

There are no moral victories in the NFL. But the Panthers’ fourth-quarter performance speaks volumes about the offense’s resilience and potential moving forward.

Baker Mayfield finished strong after a disastrous start to his Panthers debut

Carolina was supposed to be more explosive than last year, with Mayfield being a massive upgrade at quarterback.

However, the Panthers offense played the worst it possibly could to open the season. Their first five possessions went like this: three-and-out, three-and-out, punt, interception, three-and-out. Carolina ran 19 plays for 13 total yards across the opening five drives.

The unit looked disjointed early on, but Mayfield shrugged off the sluggish start and looked much improved the rest of the way. He led the Panthers on their first scoring drive late in the first half while connecting with four different pass catchers.

By the time the fourth quarter came around, Mayfield was in his best form. He led the offense to a score on all three possessions, recording 17 points and gaining 169 yards on just 13 plays. He scored both touchdowns – one with his arm and the other with his legs – and even earned a perfect 158.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter.

Mayfield proved to be a strong closer in both halves but will have to get into a groove right away after exiting the locker room. He threw for 225 yards in the second and fourth quarters compared to just 10 in the first and third.

The 27-year-old quarterback has only been in Carolina for two months and is still working on developing a connection with his new pass catchers. It’s an encouraging sign, though, to see him rise to the occasion and not regress back to his days with the Browns from last season.

The Carolina Panthers must get their stars more touches moving forward

The NFL is a star-driven league, and if you have elite-level players, you need to get them the ball as often as possible to win.

Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson, Jonathan Taylor, you name it. Each of their respective teams finds a way to get its superstars the ball.

The Panthers, meanwhile, didn’t exercise the same mindset in Week 1. Christian McCaffrey played 81% of the offensive snaps, handling the rock just 14 times for 57 yards. The All-Pro running back is easily one of the most talented ball-carriers when healthy, but only five of his touches came in the first half.

Even if the Panthers are trying to preserve him for the fourth quarter, CMC needs to be more involved in the early stages of the game.

DJ Moore was just as absent, as he caught three of his six targets for 43 yards. He also had one carry for seven yards.

Moore is coming off three consecutive seasons with 1,100-plus receiving yards and at least four touchdowns, yet the star wideout wasn’t even Mayfield’s top option in the game. Robbie Anderson finished with more receptions, yards, and targets.

The Panthers have to get their stars the ball more, but Mayfield’s unit also needs to do its part and stay on the field. Carolina ran just 50 offensive plays against the Browns, the smallest amount since Cam Newton’s reunion against Washington.

If head coach Matt Rhule and the Panthers want to reach the playoffs and end the three-year streak of double-digit losses, McCaffrey and Moore need to be more of a vocal point in the offense.

The Panthers are in good shape to make the playoffs but face a must-win scenario in Week 2

Baker Mayfield at the line of scrimmage during the Carolina Panthers' Week 1 game
Baker Mayfield at the line of scrimmage during the Carolina Panthers’ Week 1 game.| Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Outside of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NFC South is still a generally weak division. The Atlanta Falcons are rebuilding, and the New Orleans Saints are searching for ways to move forward without Drew Brees and Sean Payton.

Looking ahead, the Panthers face the New York Giants on the road before hosting the Saints and the DeAndre Hopkins-less Arizona Cardinals.

These are all must-win games before heading into the meat of the regular season, but Carolina’s Week 2 matchup against the Giants will all but guarantee their fate in 2022.

The Giants are coming off a narrow 21-20 victory over the Tennessee Titans and appear to have a fully robust Saquon Barkley back. He went for 164 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries while also catching six passes for 30 yards in the win. The Panthers failed to shut down Nick Chubb in Week 1 and will have another tough test on the ground next week.

From 1990 through 2019, teams that started the season 0-2 have just a 12% chance of making the playoffs (H/T Draftkings Nation). While the postseason field expanded to 14 teams in 2020, the odds haven’t improved: None of the 16 teams that started the season winless through two games made the postseason.

The Panthers will need to do everything they can to win in the Meadowlands. If not, it will be a massive uphill battle to stay in playoff contention.

Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.

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