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Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 at 3:52 PM

It took four short weeks for Las Vegas esteem for the Carolina Panthers to come crashing down. The defending NFC champs opened the season as heavy favorites to win a fourth straight NFC South title and were considered in the mix with New England, Green Bay, Seattle and Pittsburgh to win the Super Bowl in Houston this February. The Panthers have been favored in all four of their games, but three outright losses—two by double-digits—have sent Carolina backers running for the tall grass.

Carolina is now a 9-5 shot to win the NFC South after opening the season at 1-2. And from a starting point of 10-1 to win the Super Bowl, the Panthers are now priced at 22-1 to win the Lombardi Trophy—or put another way, they’ve become a slightly longer shot than the 20-1 Philadelphia Eagles. It doesn’t take long for things to change in the fast-paced world of NFL betting.

There are a number of problems Carolina is dealing with, a reason I was ahead of the curve in going against them in Sunday’s 25-Unit play with the Falcons (+2.5) in a 48-33 win. Cam Newton doesn’t look like his MVP self from last year and that’s the tip of the iceberg. The Panther defense, the cornerstone of the success this franchise has enjoyed since 2013, is springing some big leaks.

Carolina’s defense ranks 28th in the NFL in points allowed. Three of their four games have gone Over the Vegas total and the one exception—a 22-10 loss to Minnesota on a totals line of 43—happened because of the Viking defense rather than the Panthers.

What’s more, the defensive woes have happened even as Carolina continues to get outstanding play from linebacker Luke Kuechly, the mainstay of this unit. A look at the film also shows Charles Johnson on the edge and Kawann Short inside playing good football. But the defense is really lacking depth.

Over the long haul, Carolina’s decision not to open the vault for corner Josh Norman and let him walk in free agency to the Redskins might be vindicated. In the short-term it is an absolute disaster. Bene Benwikere doesn’t look like an NFL-caliber corner right now, much less someone counted on to replace one of the best defensive backs in football. Up front, Kony Ealy and Star Lotulelei have been trainwrecks. Tre Boston is giving a mediocre performance at the free safety position.

A defense with a star like Kuechly and a good strategist like defensive-minded head coach Ron Rivera can overcome average play at some positions. It’s much more difficult to overcome truly awful play and that’s what too many Panthers are giving right now.

But just as things turned sour on Carolina in a hurry, they could turn back upward just as quickly. We’ll see if Rivera can fill in the gaping holes on his defense, either with different personnel, a revised scheme or better performance from the current cast. The Panthers play divisional games against the Buccaneers and Saints. If Carolina wins those two, they can be 3-3 and regroup going into a bye week.

These next two weeks will be critical times for NFL handicappers to watch Carolina closely and see if they can turn things back around.


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