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Thursday, November 21, 2013

These Cats Are for Real

The Carolina Panthers pulled off a stunning upset of the New England Patriots on Monday night. While the game was very close and ended on a controversial non-call on the final play of the game, the bottom line is that the Panthers outlasted the NFL’s most dominant franchise of the 21st century. The Panthers have won six consecutive games and, at 7-3, are only one game back of the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South Division lead.


The Panthers were a head scratcher of a team last season. After the smashing success of quarterback Cam Newton (2,179 yds., 16 TD, 8 INT, 63% comp. in 2013) in his 2011 rookie season and a host of high value defensive draft picks in 2012, expectations for improvement over their 6-10 season of 2011 were high for the Panthers last season. They did improve…to 7-9.
The media posed questions about Cam Newton’s maturity and leadership during the season. Whispers about potential coaching changes were abounding. Improvement was not happening quickly enough or smoothly enough for many Panthers fans.
Patience is a virtue. Newton grew over the past offseason. The Panthers defense gelled. After a 1-3 start to this season, the gears and cogs in the Panthers’ machine came into sync and clicked together.

Newton outplayed Tom Brady on Monday night. 1

Newton is the straw that stirs the drink. In addition to his cannon for an arm, he is the second leading rusher on the team, averaging close to five yards per carry. The Panthers are a fundamentally sound team – i.e. blocking and tackling…strong defense…solid running game.
Eight year veteran running back DeAngelo Williams (579 yds., 2 TD, 4.1 avg.) is on pace for another 1,000 yards rushing season. In addition, Jonathan Stewart returned from injury earlier this month, fortifying the Panthers 1-2 punch in the backfield. The punishing Panther s running attack got even tougher with Stewart’s return.
The one constant in the Panthers offense this season, as he has been for most of the franchise’s existence, is wide receiver Steve Smith (46 rec., 512 yds, 3 TD). Smith is a leader on the field both in hauling in passes and being an enforcer downfield. The future Hall of Famer, in his 13th season out of Utah, has not turned his intensity down one iota. 

Steve Smith gets in Aqib Talib's grill. Haven't people learned not to mess with him after 13 years? 3
The difference between winning and losing for the Panthers, however, has been its defense, best in the NFC. Second year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (87 tak., 1 sack, 7 TFL, 3 INT) is coming into his own as a bona fide star. His performance on Monday Night (12 tackles, 1 for a loss), while shadowed by some controversy on the final play, was a showcase to football fans of what to expect from him for a long time to come. 
Veteran defensive end Charles Johnson (23 tak., 8.5 sacks, 3 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR) appears to be finally reaping the benefits of years of diligence (beyond his lucrative contract extension signed in 2011 and restructured this year). Fellow bookend DE Greg Hardy (41 tak., 6 sacks, 5 TFL, 1 FF) has kept opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles on high alert.

The Panthers are on a collision course with the Saints.  The teams meet twice within three weeks in December. The Saints are on track to make a return to the Super Bowl, or minimally a trip to their third conference championship game in eight years. The Panthers could be the fly in the Who Dat ointment.
Carolina’s strengths, lock down defense and a strong running game, run counter to the Saints’ weaknesses – a mediocre run defense and a hit-or-miss running attack. None of the Panthers’ remaining opponents other than the Saints have a winning record right now. On the other hand, after tonight’s game against the 2-8 Atlanta Falcons, the Saints only have two games against opponents without winning records.
The stage is set for the Panthers to pull a coupe de tat in the NFC South – a division that appeared to be gift wrapped to the Saints in early October when the Saints were undefeated and the other teams in the division were under .500. Winning the games that are “supposed” to be won keeps teams like the Panthers relevant and in the hunt. Wins against the San Francisco 49ers and Patriots, as the Panthers have in the last two weeks, build confidence and present a legitimate challenge to what was once assumed last month.  

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