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Preseason power rankings: No. 15

Jake Delhomme knows upsets; his whole career is one.

He beat the longest of odds on his path to starting a Super Bowl and achieving “franchise quarterback” status.

But Delhomme has never faced a greater challenge than the one staring him in the face: Delhomme must make Panthers fans, coaches, and fellow players forget about his six-turnover playoff disaster last year.  That career-altering performance will hang like a cloud over the franchise after every interception, and only playoff success will begin to erase the disappointment.

Listen to coach John Fox this summer, and you’d swear the divisional round loss to the Cardinals never happened.  Fox says he’s not looking back, but his actions don’t support the talk.  He’s bringing back nearly the exact same team, with no significant free agent additions or a first-round draft pick. 

We doubt that approach will work in the topsy-turvy NFC South because the Panthers have too many question marks on defense. 

Carolina’s run defense was already thin before losing vital defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu for the season.  The Panthers saw how life without Kemoeatu was like last year, and it was ugly.  The team hoped third-round pick Corvey Irvin would help, but he was quiet in the offseason, and is now on injured reserve.

Defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Jon Beason, and cornerback Chris Gamble are among the best at their positions, but the unit as a whole could struggle after much of the Carolina defensive staff oddly bolted in the offseason.  Former Colts coordinator Ron Meeks is taking over, and it’s uncertain if his scheme is a fit for his new team’s talent.

The strength of the Panthers is undoubtedly its offensive line and running game.  Linemen Jordan Gross, Ryan Kalil, and Jeff Otah could all contend for the Pro Bowl, and will make DeAngelo Williams look like a superstar.

But we just can’t shake the fact that Delhomme, now 34, can’t carry a team.  And he isn’t likely to get enough help from his receiving group, which is woefully thin after Steve Smith. 

Fox has never finished worse than 7-9 in Carolina, and this remains a team that should contend for a division title.  But the schedule is much tougher this season after the Panthers were able to face the two Western Divisions in 2008, so the Panthers are very unlikely to approach 12-4 again. 

There are two quarterbacks now clearly better than Delhomme in the division (Drew Brees, Matt Ryan) and Carolina’s defense isn’t a difference-maker.

In a division where nothing stays the same for long, the Panthers appear headed in the wrong direction — back to the middle.

Key Player:  Peppers.  He has to be the All-World player from 2008, not the average one from 2007, for this defense to thrive.

Rookie to watch:  Mike Goodson.   He’s only third on the depth chart at running back, but the explosive-looking undersized back could have a big role if Jonathan Stewart can’t get healthy.

Best veteran acquisition:  Defensive tackle Louis Leonard.  He only wins because the Panthers made no other significant acquisition.

Key game: Week Two, at Atlanta.  The Panthers also face the Eagles and Cowboys before a Week Four bye.  Lose in the Georgia Dome, and Carolina could dig themselves a big hole.

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