NFL Roundtable: Cam Newton's return powers Panthers' playoff push
Each week we sit down with TwinSpires columnists Ashley Anderson, James Scully, and Scott Shapiro to discuss the latest news from around the NFL. Today they weigh in on Cam Newton's triumphant return, Mac Jones' ceiling, and the enigmatic Bucs.
Superman returned to the Panthers on Sunday. Can Cam Newton push Carolina into the playoffs?
Ashley: Newton added an interesting dynamic to the offense, as he stepped in for quarterback P.J. Walker on short-yardage situations and took full advantage. Having running back Christian McCaffrey back to his old self on Sunday certainly helped, too. While Cam will need some time to learn the playbook, he demonstrated plenty of athleticism and his ability to move the ball when called upon to do so. The Panthers face a favorable stretch against Washington, Miami, and Atlanta, which are all must-win games in order to make the playoffs, as the Bucs (twice) and New Orleans will close out their schedule. Newton was the perfect pickup for Carolina, and is capable of helping his team earn the sixth or seventh seed in the NFC.
James: Absolutely. Considering the lack of depth among NFC playoff contenders, Carolina looks poised to make the playoffs with Cam Newton. The Panthers are the seventh seed presently, and they own the tiebreaker advantage over the eighth seed, Minnesota. It’s a big drop off after the top five teams in the NFC, and don’t be surprised if the seventh seed winds up with a losing record.
Scott: Cam Newton’s return to Carolina most certainly brought a much-needed energy boost to the Panthers, but it is unlikely to lead them to the playoffs. Sure, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner is an upgrade over Sam Darnold and P.J. Walker, but he still has major deficiencies at this point of his career. Plus, Carolina’s schedule down the stretch is brutal. They face Tampa Bay twice, Buffalo, and New Orleans. They better beat the Washington Football Team and Miami in their next two games if they want to have any chance of making the postseason.
Mac Jones has shown he can be efficient, but can he also be elite? What’s the ceiling for the Patriots’ rookie QB?
Ashley: I’ve been reluctant to embrace the potential long-term solution to Tom Brady’s departure from New England, but Jones has shown he has the talent and poise to lead Belichick’s offense to a potential playoff run in 2021. Future Hall of Famer Drew Brees called Jones a "steal" as the No. 15 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and went so far as to predict that the Alabama product would have the most success of any rookie quarterback, not just this season but for the next few years. So far, Brees has looked wise in that assessment, but I think it’s too soon to tell if Jones can become New England’s franchise QB. I see him working well within the Patriots’ system, and if he continues to develop his arm strength, he’ll become a valuable piece to this offense and keep New England in playoff contention year in and year out.
James: His ceiling gets higher every week, and Mac Jones is proving doubters wrong – he clearly has the potential to be elite. The rookie performed like a seasoned pro against Cleveland, completing nine of his first 10 passes as finished 19-for-23 with three touchdowns, and Jones is in the right situation to thrive. He’s not there yet, but keep underestimating him at your own peril.
Scott: Jones does not have the same elite athleticism as some of the NFL’s top signal callers, but he has been extremely impressive in his rookie season. The former University of Alabama star now sits fifth in Pro Football Focus’ highest graded QBs, and has the Patriots just a half-game behind the first-place Bills. Jones is highly unlikely to ever be as good as Tom Brady, but his accuracy and intelligence give him a much higher ceiling than I originally thought. He can definitely be an elite NFL quarterback.
The Buccaneers have now lost two straight games. What will it take for Tampa Bay to pull out of its mini tailspin?
Ashley: Brady has looked uncharacteristic the past two games, with a pair of interceptions against both New Orleans and Washington, after he threw just three across the first seven games of the season. TB12 will get back on track, but the larger concern – the defense — could require quite a bit of work to get Tampa Bay into championship form. The Bucs surrendered 29 points to Washington, a team that hadn’t scored more than 13 points in a matchup since Week 5, and let the Saints rack up 36 points, their second highest total of the season. The secondary has gotten badly exposed, and even the Bucs’ elite run defense has begun to fall apart over the last few games. To make this team a serious threat in the postseason, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles must find a spark in his defense so the Bucs aren’t constantly digging themselves into holes and forcing the offense to come from behind.
James: Tampa Bay’s offense misses Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski, and will get both players back, but their absence isn’t to blame for Sunday’s flat performance. The Buccaneers were embarrassed by lowly Washington. However, the disheartening performance may be a blessing in disguise. Tampa Bay seemed on the verge of collapse last year when getting shredded at home by Kansas City, the second of back-to-back losses, and they rallied around the poor showing with eight straight wins, including a victory in Super Bowl LV.
Scott: The Bucs have lost their last two contests to inferior football teams in large part due to mental errors, turnovers, and poor blocking. In their Week 10 defeat in Washington, Brady hardly threw the ball downfield, tossed a pair of interceptions, and was sacked five times. There is no doubt injuries on both sides of the ball have hurt the former champs of late, but if they clean up the penalties and fundamentals I have little doubt that they will be a major player in the NFC come January.