The Carolina Panthers are atop the NFC, the only undefeated team left in the conference. The way this team has won games is exactly the way they love to play…ugly.
Head coach Ron Rivera has shown in the past he can make a defense great. With Rivera’s attacking 4-3 defense, Carolina stands unbeaten and has one of the top defenses in the league.
Led by linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, the Panthers are second in the league allowing 4.6 yds per play. Combo that with excellent red zone efficiency (seventh) and forcing 2.6 turnovers a game, they pass the best measuring sticks for determining great NFL defenses. Carolina forces opponents into making mistakes and they limit the bigplay(.com), a guaranteed recipe for success.
Besides covering sideline to sideline and both being on pace for 90 plus tackles, Davis and Kuechly have provided some great assistance in the passing lanes. (3 combined interceptions) But this Carolina secondary has done more than carried its fair share apart from the linebacking play. Josh Norman is playing as well as any corner in the league, almost begging QBs to throw his way. This past Monday night he held T.Y. Hilton to one catch on seven targets…a microcosm of what he’s done all year in shutting down the best receiver on opposing teams. Norman’s play, combined with Charles Tillman finding his way to the football (five pass breakups and an interception) and Kuechly and Davis being so good in coverage, Carolina is afforded the luxury of not having to abandon its base defense in spite of multiple recievers. Add this to the ability to punish receivers and backs with big hits and gang tackle, they seem to pass every litmus test of a super bowl defense.
All of these are great reasons that Carolina should be taken very seriously as the NFC favorite, but none are more important than…Cam Newton.
The Panthers offense reflects the personality of thier leader, tough and determined with a dash of confidence. Cam Newton seems to have little regard for his personal stats and just wants to win baby. Cam hasn’t exactly lit it up through the air this year posting a lower completion percentage than Andrew Luck, a lower QBR than benched Colin Kaepernick, and fewer touchdowns than Brian Hoyer. Not exactly MVP candidate numbers, Cam and the Panthers just don’t give a damn. They want to run the ball and they run it well. Leading the league in yards per game, at 144.8. Cam himself totes the ball more like a running back, with 64 attempts and an average of 4.5 yards per attempt. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a QB that makes 100 million dollars and is expected to get hit the way Cam is.
Without a top tier wide receiver, (Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery are 4th options at best) he has relied heavily on tight end Greg Olsen to put points up when this offense gets close to the redzone. Yet what has helped this offense the most? Teams can’t commit to playing the pass on most downs. When you have a true dual threat quarterback the opposing defensive coordinator cannot afford to drop everyone back in coverage. Cam almost demands a spy of some sort and teams have run a spy against Cam more than any other QB in the league just to keep him in the pocket. Or try to. Cam has answered everything opponents have thrown at him even with his receivers leading the league in drops.
Cam continually shows us why he was worth every penny of that giant contract. A natural leader with an ability to inspire his team and rally his men. He embodies the smash mouth, brash, up the gut, smack you in the mouth mindset this organization has cultivated.
Today we will see the Panthers tested by the Green Bay Packers. Before this week Aaron Rodgers and company were considered by many the gold standard of the NFC. If Cam and company can keep up the style of play they love, they have a chance to distance themselves from the rest of the pack. I fully expect them to do so. With a coach of the year candidate (Rivera), a defensive player of the year candidate (Norman), and in my opinion the NFL MVP (Newton) the Panthers are my mid season pick to win the NFC. This isn’t a fluke 7-0 team. The Panthers are for real and you can expect them to compete week in and week out in the NFC all the way through January.