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The Panthers enter the season as one of the mystery teams of the NFL. They started 2-8 last season before winning five of their last six — including a 30-20 victory over Atlanta — to finish 7-9 and spur a lot of optimism about the future.

Still, coach Ron Rivera is on the hot seat after going 13-19 in his first two seasons with the Panthers. He will be expected this season to get more out of talented third-year quarterback Cam Newton and a defense led by standout second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

That Carolina has talent was evident in many stats last season — the Panthers were 10th in total offense and 12th in total defense. But some gaudy numbers have been offset by an inability to finish close games — Carolina was 1-7 last season in games decided by seven points or less, including a 16-12 loss to the Seahawks in Charlotte on Oct. 7.

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