When the final whistle sounded after Cam Newton took a knee in the Carolina Panthers' 35-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints, a flood of optimism rushed over both the team and their fanbase. Yes, getting a victory against a division rival who has been heavily favored to make the playoffs is great, but what team will define the Panthers in 2012?
Their opening season loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was very unexpected and perhaps a mild upset considering the way Carolina dominated them last season. The offensive line was horrible and not only did they deny Newton ample time to throw, they failed to give their running backs any room to run. A meager 10 yards on the ground will never benefit any team, and when a strong element of the game plan is taken away, the results are usually grim.
However, the Panthers found a way to turn things around the following week against the Saints, and they showed up in every possible aspect of the game.
They rushed with authority. They passed with accuracy and effectiveness. They found ways to apply pressure to Drew Brees. The special teams unit did what they were supposed to, especially on punts.
So, which one of these performances will best describe the Panthers this season?
The win against the Saints was huge, not only because it was a divisional game but because the Panthers proved they can compete with the established big boys of the league. However, losing to a team that many feel is a season or two away from competing raises concerns that the Panthers could be inconsistent.
Tampa seems to be showing signs of being a competitor early on after a shootout loss to the New York Giants. The Giants are coincidentally the next opponent for the Panthers this Thursday. It is fair to surmise that a Carolina win against New York would help strengthen the Panthers' chances at being contenders this year, though a loss will keep the questions looming around the organization.
Even if the Panthers were to lose, hope wouldn't be lost. After their first three games of the 2005 season, Carolina found themselves 1-2 but were able to rebound and make a deep playoff run.
Winning this past Sunday helped put the Panthers on the right path, and it is easier to move forward at 1-1 as opposed to 0-2. A victory on Thursday will boost their confidence and be a motivating factor as the season progresses.
This will be imperative as the schedule offers very little in terms of breaks. From start to finish, the Panthers have their work cut out for them. Their division is without a doubt very competitive with the Atlanta Falcons sitting in the driver's seat. There is very little reason to believe that the Buccaneers or the Saints will fade away when the rematches take place later this year.
Then there is the rest of the schedule.
While it is still too early to get a feel for what kind of team the Panthers present going forward, the same logic applies to the rest of the league. Carolina is in decent shape and shouldn't be looking ahead as they should take it slowly, one game at a time.
This team has shown they can defeat an NFL powerhouse, but it will take more than one victory to make them stand out as legitimate contenders in the NFC. They need to build upon Week 2's success and ensure they do not regress the way they did when the season started.