Don't believe me? If the season ended today, the Panthers would be just inside the playoff picture. Below them on the list sit the now quarterback-less Chicago Bears, the enigmatic Detroit Lions and the still-growing Philadelphia Eagles. At that point, it's more than feasible that the NFC South could send two teams to the playoffs this year.
Then again, what if the Panthers just win the division outright?
According to the prevailing narratives about the two teams, it might sound crazy, but the Panthers have the talent to do it. In fact, it's even possible to say that the Panthers are just as talented as the 5-1 New Orleans Saints.
No, seriously...come back.
On the NFL Network post-game show, Rich Eisen asked Panthers quarterback Cam Newton if his team could beat the Saints and win the division. Newton, as one might expect, answered: "absolutely."
His confidence is not misplaced.
The Panthers are led by one of the best defensive front sevens in the league. Following the draft selections of defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and the effective Kawann Short, the Panthers have given the linebackers more room to flow to the attack. Those players also add beef to give ends like Greg Hardy (in a contract year) and Charles Johnson more space to attack the edge and get to opposing quarterbacks.
Yet, it's not the defense that gives me confidence that the Panthers are legitimate contenders. No, the defense was a given. We expected that. In fact, it was an indictment of head coach Ron Rivera that we hadn't seen in sooner. Rather, it is the improved and balanced offense that gives the Panthers a puncher's chance of getting into the postseason.
|Panthers Offensive Drives Against the Buccaneers|
|0:53:00||4||3||-5||End of Game|
Look, I know the Panthers just beat the Buccaneers. I know the Bucs aren't very good, but their defense has been. Don't let the awfulness of head coach Greg Schiano, MRSA, the Josh Freeman debacle and the receiver drops taint your view of Tampa Bay's solid defense.
Heading into the night, the Buccaneers were a bit pedestrian against the pass, but were extremely stout against the run—top five in the NFL good. Not only do they have a load of talent in the secondary, but linebacker Lavonte David is one of the best in all of football. The defensive line, as well, is no joke.
Newton tore them up.
|Cam Newton Against the Buccaneers|
Anytime a player scores multiple touchdowns, it's going to be an impressive night, but the way Newton did it was even more outstanding. Newton fought through a number of drops by his receivers and took off on both designed and ad-libbed runs.
Buccaneers cornerback Darrelle Revis had one of the best nights of his season, manning up against receiver Steve Smith and holding him to four catches for 42 yards. As always, Newton found himself relying on less-than-desirable secondary targets or his own legs to make plays.
Here's a read-option (actually a triple option) that sprung running back DeAngelo Williams for a big gain.
First, Newton rides the "dive back" as he reads the position and intent of the "dive key." Then, he chooses whether or not to pitch the ball based on the position of the "pitch key"—here, Gerald McCoy. McCoy plays it well, but eventually has to decide what to do and Newton makes a last-second pitch. It's a play so well-executed, it's impossible to stop.
This play is the opposite of the read option, though many times, you will hear it called as such by announcers and broadcasters. This is an inverted veer, and it's just as dangerous with Newton at the helm.
Newton rides the running back through the mesh point as he reads up-field. Seeing the lane open, the running back becomes a lead blocker for him, who is able to cut up field for a big gain. Had that circled defensive player crashed across the line of scrimmage, it probably would've been an equally big gain for the back.
Of course, one doesn't have to draw up runs with Newton for him to get big gains along the ground.
This is a pass play, but Newton sees green grass ahead of him and takes off. Immediately, his receivers do what they can do to: first, stay open in case he decides to make a last-second throw; and second, keep the defenders from crashing down on him.
Look at that (circled) box out by Ted Ginn Jr. It's a thing of beauty.
You know what all of that running does to a defense? It opens up the pass game like nothing else.
This play is Cover-2 from the Buccaneers, and the rest of the defenders (boxed) are in soft coverage, pushing their zones back-back-back as the play extends. See how all of them are scared to death at the threat of Newton running? Their eyes are in the backfield, trying to keep the play in front of them, and they are simply caught off-guard when the receiver cuts in to a wide-open hole in the zone.
Running the ball is not the key for the Panthers. Passing the ball is not the key, either. Instead, the most important thing for Carolina is to maintain balance. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula hasn't always been great at that, and Newton's teammates haven't always given him a hand in one area or the other.
|The Panthers' Balance Against Tampa Bay|
|Yards per pass||6.1|
|Yards per rush||4.8|
Against a good Buccaneers defense, however, it worked.
It's an uphill battle for the Panthers, but players like receiver Brandon LaFell, Ginn Jr. and the hopefully returning Jonathan Stewart can all pitch in to allow Newton to head a balanced offense. The more Newton spreads the ball out (nine receivers on Thursday night), the more defenses are pressured.
It this offense as good as the Saints? Probably not—at least not consistently. Is Newton a better quarterback than Drew Brees? Absolutely not. Can Shula hold a candle to Saints offensive guru and head coach Sean Payton? No, no he cannot.
Still, if Carolina's offense can simply hold its own and find balance and consistency, the argument could be made that the Panthers are a better overall team. With such a staunch defense and an effective run game, it could also be argued that they're more suited for the dog days of the season headed into the playoffs.
There's a lot of season left, but the Panthers offense helped establish themselves at legitimate contenders in Week 8.