It starts - tomorrow.
The preseason battles are over and 53 men remain standing and ready to start this epic season. OK, so maybe some of them have to sit and rest a knee or hamstring or whatever but most are standing.
Tomorrow the fellowship of the SB rings starts the long road that will hopefully lead to a freezing Sunday in NY early February.
There are many roads that lead to that day. The easiest is the SB highway but teams made it there on the side roads too. Still, it’s much easier to make it on the main road since most of those side roads will bring us to SF, GB or ATL in January.
The SB highway for us is clear and it is based on the following benchmarks:
8-0 at home – Yes, all of them, again.
4-4 or better away – With 5 10a.m. east coast games, playing 4 teams with 11W or more in 2012, we need to win 4 games or more.
The above will put us at 12-4 or better and that should be good enough to top the division, perhaps the NFC. That’s the highway to SB, bye week and home court advantage will make it easier on January.
Obviously, there may be detours on that road but if you get off it due to a home loss or losing one of your easier away games you need to earn your way back to it by winning harder games away etc.
While all our efforts and attention are currently dedicated to this epic quest – the all mighty cap and the 2014 roster are looming over our heads. With Thurmond, Browner, Baldwin, Breno, Bennett and Tate becoming free agents and Thomas, Sherman entering their contract year by the end of the 2013 season we'll need some cap space to resign some if not most of them. With the current projected cap for 2014 without those players leaving less than 10M space including dead money released and rollover it’s clear that some painful steps will need to be taken to be able to keep the players we want or sign replacements etc.
Those steps will wait till the end of this season as long as the road to the SB is clear ahead. The further we stray from the main SB highway the more likely it is that some of those steps will happen during the 2013 season. Steps like making a choice between Avril and Clem (Can't keep them both at over 15M a season combined) or between Harvin and Rice (Again, at over 25M combined…) may happen during this season.
We'd hate to see the almighty cap bite into our 2013 quest and it won’t as long as we are safely on the SB highway.
We start the season a bit banged up with injuries and starters that missed most of training camp and preseason. Clem is not back yet, Irvin is away for 4 games, Harvin for at least 6 etc.
Unfortunately the first 2 games are crucial to remain on the SB highway. The Panthers game is most likely the easiest of the 5 10a.m. Games. We must win at least two of those (can’t plan on a win in SF) so losing in Carolina means dropping off the SB highway until we make up for it by winning at HOU or IND. Following is our hardest home game – SF. Losing it is both a lose at home and a big edge for SF inside the division so it’s a must win game too. Anything less than a 2-0 start and the ugly cap head will start rising.
With all the above on the table we need to win tomorrow at Carolina and it’s not as easy as it may seem. The following key battles will decide the outcome:
The run game – Yes, we are a run first beast led team. Carolina is a formidable front 7 defense that stopped our run game last year and only got better in the front 7 since. Running all over them won't be easy and we may need the passing game to open things up for the running game rather than the opposite. RW will not have an easy clean pocket so scrambling, bootlegging and working outside the pocket might be the key.
Containing Newton – While our D line is pretty banged up and missing some key contributors like Clem, Avril and Irvine, the Panthers’ O line is not their strength point either. Being able to keep Cam inside, forcing him to pass rather then run, will force the Panthers offense to bang heads against our strength in the secondary.
Win the turnover and field position battle – This will not be a shootout. This will be hard and physical 60 minutes grind. Turnovers, special teams and field position may be the deciding factor in the end.
So, it’s not easy. Well, if it was easy – everybody would be able to do it.
After 8 months of winning on paper it’s time to do it were it matters – on the grass.
It’s time to GO MY HAWKS.