Fans have reasons to be excited for the season opener more than they were the last few years. When the Jaguars open the 2015 season at EverBank this Sunday, a much-improved team, and most importantly, quarterback, will be on the field.
They’ll face the Carolina Panthers, who were a playoff team the last two seasons, even with an under .500 record last year. The Panthers are 2.5-point favorites and have one of the league’s stronger defenses. They’ll have to stop the progression of Blake Bortles, who’s coming off a great preseason. They added Charles Tillman at cornerback in the offseason, while injuries to their D-line and secondary look to be cleared up before Sunday.
The Panther’s linebacking core could be the best in the league, lead by Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. A big matchup will be focused between the Panther’s D-line, and a revamped Jag’s o-line. T.J. Yeldon, the Jag’s second-round pick, will be making the start at RB, but Denard Robinson and Toby Gerhart will share touches. If they can move the ball on the ground, it’ll take a lot of pressure off Bortles.
Bortles will be without Julius Thomas, a huge red-zone threat, but Mercedes Lewis and Clays Harbor are more than capable of producing at tight end until he is healthy. Lewis against Kuechly or Davis will be the matchup to look for. Also picking up the red-zone slack will be Allen Robinson, who is poised for a breakout year.
Jacksonville is banged up on the defensive line … something that could come into play against the seventh best rushing team of 2014. But the first priority is stopping Cam Newton. The Panthers are missing Kelvin Benjamin, their leading receiver in 2014, who tore his ACL in August. Starting will be journeyman Ted Ginn Jr. and Philly Brown, but their receiver to watch is rookie Devin Funchess. Greg Olsen, TE, was the Panther’s other offensive force last season and safety Jonathan Cyprien will likely cover him.
Stopping Cam and Jonathan Stewart will be the biggest part. D-linemen Andre Branch and Sen’Derrick Marks are out, but the depth will hopefully show through. Telvin Smith will need to have a big game, and new acquisitions, Dan Skuta along with Jared Ordick, need to make their presence known early in the year by holding the Panther’s run game in check.
The Panthers will be able to run the ball decently, and Newton will find the end zone, but Bortles and the offense will continue their success. Either Allen Robinson or Mercedes Lewis will get into the end zone and the trio of running backs should be just enough to open the field up. Cyprien keeps Greg Olsen somewhat quiet and the o-line holds up.
Jaguars 20 Panthers 17