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NFL countdown: New-look Panthers could surprise

This is the third in a series of 32 NFL team betting previews in 32 days leading up to the league’s Sept. 10 season opener. We’ll count down the teams from the lowest season win total to the highest.

Bookmakers say first-year coach Matt Rhule will turn the Carolina Panthers around. The question is how soon.

Rhule was hired from Baylor, which he led from the depths of a sexual assault scandal under previous coach Art Briles to the cusp of the College Football Playoff last season.

Quarterback Cam Newton, the face of the Panthers for the past nine seasons, was let go. Rhule is rebuilding around dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey, new quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and a revamped defense.

Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito said he likes the Panthers as a dark horse in the NFC South and to go over 5½ wins.

“Every year a team goes from worst to first (in the division),” he said.

The reason it could be the Panthers, he said, is because weaknesses can be found in the other NFC South teams. New Orleans has been the class of the division amid a string of heartbreaking playoff losses, but quarterback Drew Brees has shown some signs of age.

Tampa Bay signed six-time Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady to great fanfare, but he also showed his age in his final season in New England. Atlanta appears to be running in place under coach Dan Quinn.

Westgate sportsbook vice president of risk Ed Salmons agrees with Esposito.

“If you play Carolina, you have to go over,” he said.

Salmons said he “loves Matt Rhule as a coach,” especially after he showed he could win at Temple and Baylor.

“Usually, guys who go from one region of the country to another don’t do well,” he said.

Rhule’s offensive coordinator is Joe Brady, who served as passing game coordinator for No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy and national title campaign last season at Louisiana State.

Brady will have a capable quarterback in Bridgewater, who went 5-0 as a starter last season for New Orleans and, more importantly for bettors, is 28-7 against the spread in his career.

Bridgewater completed 67.9 percent of his passes for 1,384 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions last season.

“He just doesn’t turn the ball over,” Salmons said, while Kyle Allen, who started most of last season for the Panthers in place of the injured Newton, “turned the ball over left and right.”

Rhule gave a hint of his approach when Carolina used all seven of its draft picks on defensive players. If the Panthers play defense, protect the ball and feed McCaffrey, perhaps they can surprise the division.

“That’s how (Rhule) did it at Baylor,” Salmons said.

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.

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