I’ll be honest. I saw Carolina improving this season, but I thought their schedule was too tough for the Panthers to make the playoffs.
Before the season I claimed that the Panthers were still a shutdown corner and deep threat receiver away from truly contending, and would finish 8-8. I also called the month of November a murders row slate of games (vs. Falcons, 49ers, Patriots, and Dolphins).
In my mid-season predictions I still didn’t think the Panthers could pull it off because of their inability to win close games, and would finish 9-7. Then the last two weeks happened, and the Panthers won close games and have become contenders.
One reason for this is Cam Newton has finally fixed his only real flaw: maturity. Newton is playing through the tough times and is now able to stay optimistic when he makes mistakes. Cam now knows that he doesn’t have to do everything, and that has helped him become a complete quarterback. Newton has proved himself by keeping his composure even when down 9-0 in second quarter against San Francisco and doing what he could, while the defense pulled the weight. Then he led an incredible comeback drive against the Patriots that ultimately sealed the victory.
He also is doing something only great quarterbacks do which is make his receivers better. For the past couple of seasons only Steve Smith and Greg Olson could be considered reliable. Now, wide receivers Brandon Lafell and surprisingly, Ted Ginn Jr, who couldn’t catch on in Miami or San Francisco, are producing. They may rank 28th in passing offense but Cam has been very efficient throwing the ball, especially on third down where he is third in the NFL in getting the first down in the air ( 33/70, 47.1%).
Furthermore, the Panthers are now able to effectively run the ball. Last year DeAngelo Williams through 10 games averaged 3.39 yards per carry. Now he’s averaging 4.1 and has kept the offense rolling as they have three other players capable of pounding the rock in Cam Newton, Michael Tolbert, and the recently declared healthy Jonathan Stewart. With this pack of rushers the Panthers are amassing 125.3 rushing yards a game while punching it in the end zone 10 times.
Another reason for the recent success is the change in head coach Ron Rivera. The once defensive-minded conservative Ron Rivera now has morphed into “River Boat Ron” the defensive-minded gambler, and it’s paid off. Rivera is one win away from totaling a season high in wins, while nearing (20-22 career coaching record) a .500 record for his coaching career, which pretty much ends the proclamations that he will be fired by the end of the season. It’s also not a shock that the success starts with what Rivera knows best, defense .Which is the foremost reason everybody is jumping on the Panthers band wagon.
Drafting defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short back to back, and pairing them with pass rushers Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy has mutated their line into becoming “Monster’s Inc.,” while making new GM Dave Gettleman look like a genius. Last year against the rush the Panthers were ranked 19th and allowed 110.1 yards a game. This season they are, as of now, ranked third and have only conceded 84.5 rushing yards a game, while allowing three touchdowns so far this season. The success at the line has also helped Thomas Davis and the next great linebacker Luke “The Lion Heart” Kuechly roam free and do what they do best, which is chase down the man with the ball, even if he’s 40 yards away.
Most importantly it has helped the secondary as quarterbacks are being rushed and not having time to find the open receivers which has a secondary that was once ranked 20th, now fifth best in the league.
This has led to free agent signee in the off-season Mike Mitchell, looking like a steal pickup as he is having his best season to date (38 tackles, three interceptions, and two fumbles recovered). It also helps that two undrafted free agents are starting to emerge in the secondary, with safety Robert Lester and cornerback Melvin White showing they have what it takes to play in this league.
Another key fact is last season and through the first two games this year, the Panthers choked six games away due to 4th quarter scoring drives by the opponent, which gave the opposing team the lead and then the win. Over the last two games, the Panthers have shut down both Tom Brady and Colin Kaepernick’s final drives by intercepting the ball to seal the deal.
Now the Panthers still have to keep pushing to clinch the playoffs, as there are four teams sitting at 6-4 and looking to punch their own ticket for the playoffs. The path is a little rough with the Saints twice in three weeks and the Jets and Dolphins, who are still in contention in the AFC for the playoffs, on the schedule. No matter what, I will admit now I was wrong about this Carolina team. They remind me of the 2003 team that defied the odds and made it a field goal away from a Super Bowl. As long as the defense keeps up the work and Cam Newton keeps proving he has grown away from his sulking days, Carolina will ride this horse as far as they can.