Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers appeared destined to return to the playoffs midway through the 2018 season. But after a 6-2 start, a Week 10 drubbing on the road in Pittsburgh was the start of a disastrous seven-game losing streak that led to a non-playoff season for Newton and the Panthers. 

While Carolina enjoyed one of the league's top rushing attacks last season -- they led the entire NFL with a 5.1 yards per carry average -- the Panthers' offense still struggled to generate points during the second half of the season, scoring over 21 points just once during their seven-game losing streak. This is a clear indicator the NFL has become a passing league, and with Newton playing through a shoulder injury, the offense didn't have enough firepower.

And while Carolina's defense was middle of the pack in most statistical categories, their 27th place finishes in touchdown passes allowed (32) and sacks (35) further underlined this concept.

Carolina's success in 2019 hinges on the health of Newton, who underwent offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder after he was forced to miss the final game of the 2018 season. The early signs out of training camp suggest Newton has returned to his pre-injury form, and the veteran quarterback has a slew of talented young skill position players all under 25 years old (Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, D.J. Moore) to work with for the first time his career.

Despite their question marks, we believe the Panthers are going to find a way to back it back to the tournament in 2019. Allow us to explain how head coach Ron Rivera and his team will make that happen. 

1. Less will be more for RB Christian McCaffrey 

Many in the media are predicting that McCaffrey (who is a lock to make his first Pro Bowl team this season) will eclipse 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2019 after racking up 1,965 total yards in 2018. While that could certainly happen, Rivera has said this offseason that he would like to share the wealth at the running back position while lightening McCaffrey's load. 

While Cameron Artis-Payne returns for his fifth NFL season, the Panthers have been impressed by what they've seen out of rookie running backs Jordan Scarlett and Elijah Holyfield. Scarlett, a fifth-round pick who averaged 5.3 yards per carry in three seasons at the University of Florida, had nine total touches for 49 yards in Carolina's second preseason game against the Bills that included a 16-yard run and a 14-yard reception. An undrafted rookie who rushed for over 1,000 yards during his final year at the University of Georgia, Elijah, son of boxing great Evander Holyfield, tallied rushing and receiving touchdowns while leading Carolina to a win over Chicago in their preseason opener. 

Both players should help strengthen an already strong Panthers' rushing attack while helping keep McCaffrey fresh for a possible playoff run. 

2. Newton returns to Pro Bowl form in 2019

Calling Cam Newton a possible future Hall of Famer was not considered a stretch after the 2015 season. At that time, Newton was coming off a league MVP season that saw him lead the Panthers to a Super Bowl appearance following a 15-1 regular-season record. The former Heisman Trophy winner had also earned three Pro Bowl selections and an All-Pro nod during his first five seasons with the Panthers. 

Newton's career hasn't been the same, however, since that loss to Denver in Super Bowl 50. He lost more than half of his starts in 2016 while completing a career-low 52.9 percent of his passes. And after rebounding to lead the Panthers to an 11-5 record in 2017, Newton again lost more than half of his starts in 2018 before missing the final two games of the season with a shoulder injury. The punishment Newton (still the NFL's most dangerous running back) takes on a yearly basis has undoubtedly led to his recent struggles, as he is easily the most hit quarterback in the NFL entering his ninth NFL season. Carolina has also failed to get Newton the same type of receiving threats also franchise quarterbacks have had the luxury of having. 

An improved offensive line, coupled with the emergence of wideouts Curtis Samuels and D.J. Moore, will undoubtedly help Newton in 2019. Samuels, called "the star of training camp" by the team's website, scored seven touchdowns last season despite missing three games due to injury. Moore, the 24th overall pick in last year's draft, is expected to make a considerable jump this season after catching 55 of 82 targets for 788 yards and two touchdowns a season ago. 

The Panthers also gave Newton a new weapon this offseason in Chris Hogan, the former Patriots wideout who led the NFL with an average of 17.9 yards per catch in 2016. Carolina also signed veteran wideout Torrey Smith this past offseason. Smith, a nine-year veteran and former 1,000-yard receiver, played a key role in Baltimore's Super Bowl run back in 2012. He led the NFL with an average of 20.1 yards per catch average in 2015. 

Newton will again have reliable tight end Greg Olsen, who said that felt good during training camp after missing 16 games over the past two years due to injuries. 

3. Irvin, McCoy will add a major boost to Carolina's front seven

As stated earlier, the Panthers' defense (sans their league rankings in sacks and touchdown passes allowed) weren't terrible in terms of NFL standings a season ago. They just weren't really great at anything. The 2018 Panthers' defense finished 19th in scoring, 12th in run defense and 18th in pass defense. It's safe to say the Panthers will have to improve in each of those categories if they are going to contend for a wild card spot in 2019. 

Carolina should be vastly improved when it comes to their run defense. The Panthers, who will employ a 3-4 alignment this season, should have one of the league's best defensive interiors this season. Gerald McCoy, the team's biggest free-agent signing this offseason, was a six-time Pro Bowler during his time with the Buccaneers. The 31-year-old is motivated to show everyone that he is still one of the league's premier defensive tackles after failing to make the Pro Bowl last season for the first time since 2011. 

McCoy quickly established a rapport with Kawann Short, a seven-year veteran who is coming off his second Pro Bowl season in 2018. While they've developed a friendship off the field, Short recently said that McCoy is already making him a better player on the field. 

"He was pointing out little things I could do better," Short told the team's website. "He's got so many accolades, he could easily just try to come in and do his own thing. But he wants everybody to succeed.

"His IQ is just unbelievable. He's taught me so much about what to look for. He's elevating my game."

Bruce Irvin, an eight-year pro who was a starter on Seattle's championship defense earlier this decade, was also signed by the Panthers this offseason. Reports out of Carolina are saying that Irvin, who spent time with two different teams last season, has an edge to him this summer as he too looks to prove that he is still one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL. 

Carolina's front seven is still led by inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, a six-time Pro Bowler who made All-Pro for the fifth time in 2018. The extra talent around him in '19 should lead to another stellar season for Kuechly. 

4. Brian Burns will make a run at NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year

Another newcomer that will make an immediate impact is rookie EDGE Brian Burns. The 16th overall pick in this year's draft, Burns is already being compared to Jevon "The Freak" Kearse, a former NFL pass rusher who had one of the greatest rookie seasons in NFL history with the Tennesee Titans back in 1999. 

Burns, a former standout a Florida State, recorded two sacks -- in just 10 snaps -- in Carolina's preseason-opening victory over the Chicago Bears. After that performance, McCoy compared Burns to former Tampa teammate Noah Spence and former 49ers' pass rusher Aldon Smith. McCoy said that Burns has the power of Smith and the athleticism of Spence. 

"He can turn the corner with his knee dragging on the grass," McCoy said, per ESPN's David Newton."For him, to be that size and dip and turn the corner like that ... that's scary."

Fans also shouldn't sleep on fellow linebacker Marquis Haynes, last year's fourth-round pick who also collected a pair of sacks in Carolina's first preseason game

5. Carolina's secondary will determine the Panthers' playoff fate 

The Panthers desperately needed to improve their secondary this offseason. They made a big signing when they inked veteran safety Tre Boston to a one-year deal late last month. Boston should make a significant impact while playing alongside strong safety Eric Reid, who is back for his second season in Carolina. 

Carolina's cornerback position will be closely monitored throughout the season. Donte Jackson, a rookie last season, is motivated to show that he can be an elite cornerback after failing to record an interception during the final nine games of the 2018 season after having four picks in his first seven games. James Bradberry returns for his fourth season as Carolina's starting left cornerback, while Ross Cockrell, a former starter in Pittsburgh, enjoyed a strong summer with the Panthers and will be asked to fill a multitude of roles in the secondary this season. Rashaan Gaulden and Javien Elliott will continue to be asked to fill the team's needs in nickel situations. 

While it's not an elite group, Carolina's secondary should be a vastly improved unit in 2019. That, coupled with all the new faces on this team, will make the Panthers a wild card team when the NFC playoffs begin in January.