Underrated -- Carolina Panthers (No. 29)
When the general manager has been fired midseason, you know things haven't gone well for a team. And the Panthers' 2-6 record is proof of that. But when you examine the Panthers a little more closely, you see a team that isn't as bad as its record. They nearly beat the Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears. In fact they were in control of all of those games and let them slip through their fingers.
Let's break down the team. The much-maligned Cam Newton has been disappointing in his sophomore season, and the offense hasn't clicked. They definitely have experienced some growing pains trying to open things up more. Last year they ran three-or-more wide receiver sets on 47.4 percent of plays; this year, that number has jumped to 59.7 percent. It hasn't quite worked and the rushing game has faltered.
But the defense is much better. Nowhere is this more evident than how they're getting to the passer. Charles Johnson is averaging a quarterback disruption on 18.3 percent of pass rushes, compared with 11.8 percent last year; Greg Hardy has moved from 9.7 percent in 2011 to 13.4 percent this year; and they've even gotten production out of rookie Frank Alexander, who has a pressure percentage of 11.7 percent. It has all been making life extremely uncomfortable for opposing quarterbacks.
Yes, they'll miss Chris Gamble and Jon Beason as the season goes on, but the development of Luke Kuechly is encouraging and Thomas Davis' comeback is generating positive returns on the field -- he has held up so far, playing 53.8 percent of the team's total snaps.
Nobody is going to confuse the Panthers with a possible playoff contender. But they've been competitive -- and then some -- against good teams and are coming off a big win against the Washington Redskins. For our money, that makes them a better team than the likes of the Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills and Tennessee Titans.
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