No one likes to see a team's fortunes swing on a training camp injury, even if that team is a hated division rival. There's little point in denying that the ACL tear Kelvin Benjamin suffered yesterday has huge reverberations in the NFC South, and that it diminishes the chances that the Panthers are going to walk away with a third straight division title.
The impact on the Panthers themselves is obvious—they're down their top receiver, they don't have enough depth to absorb that, and Cam Newton is once again going to shoulder a huge part of the burden—but I wanted to take a quick look at how it might change the way the Panthers play the Falcons, and what it means for the NFC South race.
With Benjamin and Devin Funchess, the Panthers figured to be able to attack the Falcons' talented secondary through the air and create more opportunities for Greg Olsen. Now the Falcons will be able to devote more resources to Funchess and especially Olsen, making life a little easier.
With a quicker defensive front, the Falcons may be able to keep Newton in the pocket a little more, and hopefully put a stopper on the ground game. You'll never fully contain Newton and this offense, because he's so frickin' dangerous with the ball in his hands, but it takes what might have been a worrisome passing attack and diminishes the concern there. That makes life much easier for Dan Quinn and company, and not having Benjamin there lets the defense pin their ears back and chase Newton that much more.
I've still got the Falcons splitting the season series against Carolina, because they're a dangerous football team with that defense. Without Benjamin, though, the offense is likely to sputter against strong defenses, and if the Falcons can work up a halfway decent one, they'll fare much better against Carolina than they did in that ill-fated Week 17 game.
The NFC South
Every other team in the division gets a boost from this news, as morbid as that is. The Panthers without their top receiver are a team with one stellar weapon at quarterback, a solid ground game, an intriguing rookie receiver in Devin Funchess, and a defense that they'll hope can carry them when the offense cannot. The blow to the passing game figures to help the other three NFC South teams, who generally are loaded with offensive firepower but lack stellar defenses. This is still a competitive football team, but with an already questionable offensive line situation, it's not necessarily shaping up to be a great one. The prime advantage Carolina has, obviously, is that there are no great teams looming in this division, and that Newton and the defense have carried them a long way before.
Ultimately, Benjamin's injury doesn't doom the Panthers in a still-retooling NFC South, but it makes the road that much more difficult. I'd downgrade the Panthers by a win or more, and that may be enough to keep them from pulling off a third straight division title. Right now, I'd have to view the Saints and Falcons as the division favorites.