Panthers appear to be back to playoff form

Week 1 win impressed, but work remains for Carolina

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton looks to pass against the 49ers during last week's 23-3 win at Levi's Stadium. (Kelley L. Cox / USA TODAY Sports)

The Carolina Panthers took a big step in the right direction with their 23-3 win at San Francisco in Week 1.

While one game in a 16-game season wouldn’t seem to have a huge impact on a team’s playoff chances, the NFL’s Week 1 notes showed that opening day winners make the playoffs more than twice as often as losers. Since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, Week 1 winners made the playoffs 52 percent of the time, compared to 24 percent of the losers.

Bills at Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte  |  Sunday, 1 p.m.  |  CBS

The prospects for the Panthers rely on a fast start even more than the league average. Carolina has won its opener eight times in the history of the franchise. Five of those teams made the playoffs, including both Super Bowl teams, and have a combined .567 winning percentage. In the 14 seasons the Panthers lost on opening day, they made the playoffs just twice and had a .447 percentage.

Statistics aside, there were plenty of other reasons for optimism after the opener. Cam Newton shook off the rust from an inactive preseason to connect with eight different receivers and throw two touchdowns. He was perhaps at his best in leading a 42-second field goal drive just before the half.

Rookie Christian McCaffrey showed promise with 92 all-purpose yards, and the Panthers defense showed that it might be ready to return to the dominating level of two seasons ago. The Panthers forced two turnovers and had more sacks than the 49ers had points.

As Carolina prepares for its home opener, Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, there are still some areas that need improvement.

Newton still needs more work, as the offense struggled to move early, and he appeared to have trouble getting on the same page with receivers at times, most notably Kelvin Benjamin, who was targeted five times for just one catch.

While Russell Shepard impressed on a spinning 40-yard touchdown reception, the wide receiver spot still needs to develop depth.

“I think I would have liked to see a little more mixture of wide receiver combinations because of who we’ve got,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “(Rookie second-round pick) Curtis Samuel has got to get more snaps, and probably Damiere Byrd with their speed. You want to have them out there.”

The Panthers now welcome some familiar faces. Former defensive coordinator Sean McDermott won his debut as Buffalo head coach, albeit against the hapless Jets. The Bills are also led by general manager Brandon Beane, who was assistant to former Panthers GM Dave Gettleman. Had Beane stayed, he might enter this week as Panthers GM, following Gettleman’s firing just before the start of training camp.

Fullback Mike Tolbert, who came with Rivera from San Diego after the former Chargers assistant earned the Panthers head job, is also a Bill and scored a touchdown for his new team on Sunday.

“This is going to be an emotional week,” Rivera said, “with a lot of people coming back. There is a lot of familiarity.”