The Carolina Panthers suffered a bit of a Super Bowl hangover a year ago, winning only six times a season after losing in the championship game. The Panthers hope to return to the role of NFC title contenders when they travel to face the San Francisco 49ers in the season opener on Sunday.
The Panthers return to Levi’s Stadium for the first time since losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50. To return to championship contention, Carolina needs quarterback Cam Newton to get back to the MVP form he showed in 2015. The game marks the head-coaching debut of San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, who spent the last nine years as an offensive coordinator and guided Atlanta’s league-leading offense last season. The Panthers have won four straight against the 49ers, including a 46-27 home victory last season.
TV: 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX. LINE: Panthers -5.5. O/U: 47.5
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (2016: 6-10, 4th in NFC South): Newton is slimmed down and coming off offseason shoulder surgery following his sixth straight 3,000-yard passing campaign to begin his career. Newton has a new weapon at his side in all-purpose back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers’ first-round pick out of Stanford, and has his two favorite targets back in receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen. The anchors of a solid defense remain in place with linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis returning along with defensive end Mario Addison, who registered a career-high 9.5 sacks last season.
ABOUT THE 49ERS (2016: 2-14, 4th in NFC West): Shanahan doesn’t have the same kind of weapons at his disposal that he had in Atlanta, but the 49ers do have an excellent running back in Carlos Hyde. The rest of the key players on offense are newcomers in San Francisco, including quarterback Brian Hoyer and veteran receivers Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin. The defense struggled last year but is loaded with young potential in second-year lineman Forest Buckner and first-round draft picks Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster.
1. Olsen is the first tight end in NFL history with three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
2. Shanahan’s offenses have ranked in the top 10 in the league in total offense in six of his nine seasons as a coordinator.
3. Hoyer passed for 1,445 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions in six games with Chicago last season.
PREDICTION: Panthers 31, 49ers 23