A healthy Cam Newton and continuity on the offensive line, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and a defense that has been ranked in the top 10 the past three years, and an NFC South that remains down led me to predict a 10-6 record for the Carolina Panthers when the schedule came out.
The loss of star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, a key piece to the offense, leads me to adjust that to 9-7. But I still believe that will be enough to win the NFC South for the third straight year.
Here’s a week-by-week look at how this could happen:
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 13, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Even without Benjamin, the Panthers simply are more talented. These teams came into the league together in 1995, but as I said in May, the Jaguars still are playing like an expansion team. Carolina simply is too strong on defense for this to be a game without making mistakes. Score: Panthers 24, Jaguars 9. Record: 1-0.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 20, Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 27, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Nobody has replaced tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught 56 passes for 700 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games against Carolina. I still don't see enough big weapons to beat this defense, particularly in Charlotte. Score: Panthers 27, Saints 17. Record: 3-0.
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 4, at Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
What I said in May still applies. The Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers twice last season with backup Derek Anderson at quarterback. Barring fractured ribs or another car accident, Cam Newton should be under center. Score: Panthers 24, Bucs 12. Record: 4-0.
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 11, Bye
This comes at a good time for a team loading up for a tough stretch.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 18, at Seattle, 4:05 p.m.
This will look more like the 2014 NFC divisional playoff game the Seahawks won 31-17 to bring the Panthers back to reality instead of the last three regular-season games decided by five or fewer points. Remember Graham? Russell Wilson has him now. Score: Seahawks 20, Panthers 10. Record: 4-1.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 25, Philadelphia, 8:30 p.m.
A big reason I picked the Panthers to finish 10-6 was because of continuity. The lack of continuity in Philadelphia with major turnover at quarterback and running back is why I'm still picking Carolina to beat the reloading Eagles. Score: Panthers 24, Eagles 20. Record: 5-1.
Week 8: Monday, Nov. 2, Indianapolis, 8:30 p.m.
These teams have met just five times with the Panthers winning four. All those were before Andrew Luck became the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback, and he will be the difference here against a Carolina team that was 0-3 in prime time a year ago. Score: Colts 21, Panthers 17. Record: 5-2.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 8, Green Bay, 1 p.m.
Jordy Nelson was a big part of Green Bay’s 38-17 victory at Lambeau Field a year ago with a 59-yard touchdown catch. Even without Nelson (ACL), Green Bay still has Aaron Rodgers and enough weapons to make good defenses look bad. Score: Packers 24, Panthers 21. Record: 5-3.
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 15, at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
One reason left tackle Michael Oher was so happy to get out of Tennessee was the environment. He didn’t think it was conducive to winning. The Tennessee Titans simply will be outmanned, particularly at quarterback, to "Blind Side" Carolina. Score: Panthers 28, Titans 14. Record: 6-3.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 22, Washington, 1 p.m.
The Washington Redskins are still a mess at quarterback, and this Carolina defense thrives on pressuring the quarterback into mistakes. Score: Panthers 30, Redskins 10. Record: 7-3.
Week 12: Thursday, Nov. 26, at Dallas, 4:30 p.m.
Newton better wear his best Under Armour running shoes, because former Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy will be out to prove the Panthers shouldn’t have given up on him. He will feast on Cam -- not yams -- this Thanksgiving. Score: Cowboys 20, Panthers 10. Record: 7-4.
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 6, at New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Carolina turned its 2014 season around with a 41-10 victory in the Superdome. They've actually won two of their past three in New Orleans. But Drew Brees still is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Score: Saints 21, Panthers 14. Record: 7-5.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 13, Atlanta, 1 p.m.
By now new coach Dan Quinn should have his system fully in place, but he still lacks the talent on defense. Score: Panthers 28, Falcons 13. Record: 8-5.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 20, at N.Y. Giants, 1 p.m.
For the first time, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman faces the organization he helped win two Super Bowls. The New York Giants aren't a Super Bowl team, but at home they are good enough to win this one. Score: Giants 20, Panthers 14. Record: 8-6.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 27, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Remember what I said about Atlanta not being ready defensively two games ago? It won’t matter here. The Panthers can’t expect to hold wide receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan down forever. Score: Falcons 24, Panthers 21. Record: 8-7.
Week 17: Sunday, Jan. 3, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
This will be the first time since 2009 that the Panthers have finished the regular season at home. They've won their past three regular-season finales on the road, so there's no reason to think they won't win this one against a Buccaneers team that remains a few years from being competitive. That this will clinch the NFC South provides Carolina more incentive. Score: Panthers 23, Bucs 10. Record: 9-7.