Cam Newton will have a severe lack of weapons in first career playoff game
The Panthers are stacked at just about every defensive position - yes, even in their underrated secondary. Their offensive line is strong in both the run game and pass protection, they have several quality running backs, and their quarterback, Cam Newton, is a franchise signal caller. One major problem with their roster, however, are the weapons that Newton has to throw to.
From 2002 to 2012, Steve Smith was the Panthers' leader in receiving yards in all but one season (2004, when Smith broke his leg in the season opener). In 2013, however, age finally caught up with the 34-year-old, as he battled a few nagging injuries throughout the year and was simply less explosive than in years past. Smith finished the year with just 64 catches for 745 yards - excluding his rookie year and the year he broke his leg (he started just one game in each of those seasons), those are the second-lowest totals of his career.
Smith is now battling a knee injury and suffered a setback on Thursday, which has him looking doubtful for Sunday's playoff matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. If Smith does manage to play, he'll likely be used mostly as a decoy, a la Roddy White with the Falcons early in the season.
The decline and possible absence of Smith leaves Newton with very few weapons to utilize in the passing game. Tight end Greg Olsen is a reliable target over the middle in the short to intermediate range, but without Smith, the Panthers will be severely lacking a perimeter weapon and deep threat.
Brandon LaFell has been given plenty of opportunities over the past two seasons, starting all but three games as the Panthers' No. 2 receiver, but he has consistently failed to prove himself as a viable option. He caught just 49 passes for 627 yards in 2013, less than mediocre numbers for a receiver with 16 starts. His 1.18 yards per route run ranked 79th among 94 qualifying receivers, and his 7.55 yards per target were also disappointing. The Panthers were hoping that LaFell - a 2010 third-round pick - would turn into a quality weapon, but he has simply failed to do so.
The Panthers' next two leading receivers behind LaFell this season (excluding running backs) were Ted Ginn Jr., who is clearly better suited for a special teams and occasional deep threat role, and Domenik Hixon, who had seven catches all year.
Newton very well may take the field on Sunday with the trio of LaFell, Ginn, and Hixon as his top wide receivers, which would put him in a very tough situation against a ferocious 49ers defense. Newton struggled mightily (16-for-32, 169 yards, no touchdowns, one interception) when the two teams played during the regular season, and he'll be in an even tougher situation this weekend.
Sunday will be Newton's first career playoff game, and the pressure will be high for the 2011 first overall pick leading the NFC's No. 2 seed at home. If Newton can pull this one out, it would be a huge sign that he is ready to take the next step towards becoming one of the game's elite quarterbacks. Winning a game against the 49ers defense with a patchwork group of receivers would be an unbelievably impressive feat. If Newton can't get the victory, it will not be entirely disappointing, as he is still just 24 years old and will have gotten the jitters of his first postseason appearance out of the way.
This game will not just be interesting because of the two dominant defenses that will be on the field, but also to see how Newton responds to the pressure and expectations in a win-or-go-home contest against a fearsome opponent.