At 1-2, the Carolina Panthers aren’t exactly atop the list of playoff contenders. They have, however, received production from prospects, made strides in the running game and found an identity on defense. The only question left is whether or not Cam Newton is ready to lead the Panthers to the postseason.
Newton took the league by storm as a rookie in 2011 and was named Rookie of the Year. His 2012 campaign might have started slow, but he won five of his last six contests. That brings us to 2013, where he started the year with a career-low in passing yards against Seattle’s formidable secondary. The good news: Newton won’t face a passing defense ranked higher than 15th until Week 10 at San Francisco.
Coming off a 38-0 shellacking of the Giants and an early bye week, the Panthers’ confidence is riding high. "Any time you talk about great teams or teams that mesh, it's one common denominator and that is a particular swagger,'' Newton said according to David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter for ESPN.
The Panthers might be the only sub-.500 team to possess this particular swagger and for good reason. The Panthers boast the third-best scoring defense, captained by second-year middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly has been the leader, but it’s been the contribution of rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei that has stole the spotlight.
“He’s not a star. He’s a superstar. And this superstar is a beast. I see some crazy things for his future. When and if he does keep developing, he’s going to be unstoppable,” defensive end Greg Hardy told Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer.
Hardy was quick to dish out praise, but he’s also been one to receive it. He was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his Week 3 performance against the Giants. Although he’s a few sacks short of his 50-sack prediction, he has been extremely productive.
The Panthers measure production based on the ratio of plays that a player impacts. By Ron Rivera’s count Hardy had an impact every 2.3 plays en route to his NFC Defensive Player of the Week Award, as reported by Max Henson for Panthers.com.
In their first three games, the Panthers had the unfortunate draw of facing two mobile QBs—EJ Manuel and Russell Wilson. Mobile QBs tend to mitigate a strong pass rush. If the game against Eli Manning is any indication, Hardy and company should feast on pocket-dwelling QBs. Depending on Christian Ponder’s health, the Panthers only have two more mobile QBs—Colin Kaepernick and Geno Smith—remaining on their schedule.
They also have the NFL’s No. 3 rushing attack, No. 7 rush defense and No. 12 pass defense. Reaching the playoffs might require less from Newton than one might think, especially considering they’re one Manuel completion and DeAngelo Williams strip fumble away from being 3-0 even with the league’s worst aerial attack. Imagine where they would be with a moderate improvement from their franchise QB, which should be doable.
With Arizona, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay coming up, the Panthers are poised to rattle off a few W’s. It’s a conceivable, albeit optimistic, speculation that the Panthers could be 5-2 heading into their first game with Atlanta, who would be 4-3 at best.
"We're not going to say going on a run or anything,'' Cam Newton told David Newton. "Our main focus is trying to become 2-2. We're not looking down saying where we want to be. Our main focus is going to Arizona (Oct. 6) and taking care of business.''
Of course, to be in the playoff picture the Panthers will have to stay healthy, continue upward-trending performance and overcome Rivera’s 2-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less.
The Panthers' playoff hopes are moderate at best right now, but with Cam Newton getting back on track, their stellar D-line and improved ground game, the Panthers should be on the radar. They’ll be in the thick of it down the stretch.
And it can’t hurt that Newton is 7-2 in December.