The AFC South and NFC South are arguably the two worst divisions heading into the 2015-16 season. An opening week win for either the Carolina Panthers or Jacksonville Jaguars would go a long way to getting their seasons on the right track and potentially contending for a playoff berth.
Date: Sunday, September 13th 2015
Start Time: 1:00 p.m. ET
Broadcast Info: FOX
Carolina opened as a four-point favorite (O/U 42.5) and the line has largely remained static with a handful of 4.5’s available at various books. Jacksonville lost its first four games last season by an average of 23.5 points, but was much more competitive the rest of the season behind rookie quarterback Blake Bortles. The Jaguars went 6-9-1 against-the-spread last season, including 3-5 at home. Carolina finished the 2014-15 season with an 8-8 record ATS, with six of its eight road games going over the total.
Who to Watch: Having diverse playmakers is what every team strives for, but Jacksonville took it to an extreme level last season, and not in a good way. The Jaguars had six players lead them in rushing for at least a game last season (Toby Gerhart, Chad Henne, Denard Robinson, Storm Johnson, Bortles and Jordan Todman), and six players (Allen Hurns, Clay Harbor, Cecil Shorts III, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Mercedes Lewis) lead them for a game in receiving. The Jaguars need someone to emerge as a go-to guy in both areas. Newly-acquired tight end Julius Thomas should be a key addition to the passing game, but someone from the group of Gerhart, Denard Robinson, Bernard Pierce and TJ Yeldon has to become a premier back. Carolina has always had an abundance of running backs (not always healthy), and will be looking to Jonathan Stewart to be the team’s feature back in 2015-16 after years behind DeAngelo Williams. Look for Stewart to provide Cam Newton with a solid receiving option out of the backfield after recording 25 receptions last year in a limited role.
What’s the Key: If Carolina wants to repeat as NFC South champions, they’re going to need to get off to a hot start. The Panthers open at Jacksonville, host Houston and New Orleans, then travel to Tampa Bay before their Week 5 bye. Those teams combined to go 21-43 last season, and they get the “good” ones (Houston and New Orleans) both at home. How will Carolina respond to that pressure, knowing that a 4-0 start is very attainable? After starting the season 3-8-1, the Panthers rode a carefree, four-game winning streak to the division title. How will they play this season, knowing that they’re a Vegas favorite to repeat as division champs?
Where We’re Leaning: There’s a difference between “starting slow” and doing what Carolina’s offense has done in recent years. The Panthers’ last three Week 1 games have all gone well under the projected total, including scoring just one touchdown in 2012 and 2013 (they managed two last season). Before beating the lowly Bucs in last season’s opener, the Panthers lost their previous five Week 1 games, averaging 13.2 points per game. Jacksonville’s defense showed tremendous improvement at the end of last season. Asking these two offenses to reach 43+ points is a stretch. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the under in this Week 1 NFL free pick, courtesy of WagerTalk.