The Carolina Panthers have enjoyed a streak of success in recent weeks, capping off the month of October with a 31-13 blowout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Entering November, the Panthers find themselves over .500 for the first time since their division winning season of 2008. If Carolina is to maintain that status, they will need to have a strong showing over the next four weeks. However, their task will be far from easy.
Additionally, it could determine whether or not this young team is capable of a playoff run with its current roster and coaching staff.
Carolina will open the second half of their schedule with a home game against the Atlanta Falcons. That game will end their streak of winnable games, as their next two opponents are playoff contenders. Following their game against Atlanta, the Panthers will travel out west to square off against the San Francisco 49ers and then return to Charlotte for a Monday night game against the New England Patriots. Carolina will close out November with a trip back to Florida to take on the Miami Dolphins.
Assuming the Panthers continue to play at their current level and split their November games, they should be in a decent position to compete for the division title when they play the rival New Orleans Saints in the season's final month.
The smart money is still on the explosive offensive attack the Saints have, which is led by quarterback Drew Brees. Not too many experts are expecting the Carolina Panthers to win the NFC South. Instead, most are putting them in the wild-card picture. Despite the positive outlook, the Panthers have a lot of football to play, and for now, they seem to firing on all cylinders.
The scary thing about Carolina is they could very well be 5-2 or 6-1. Mistakes in the first three games of their season led to a slow start, but the fall could pave the road to redemption when they enter the final weeks of the season. What makes the Panthers a legitimate playoff contender and relevant against their November schedule comes down to multiple variables.
One of the Best Defenses
For those with a general following of the team, there was no mistake about how good the Panthers defensive front seven would be in 2013. The general concern stemmed from their underachieving secondary and how vulnerable it would be against the passing attack. This concern was further compounded by playing in a division that featured two of the best quarterbacks in the league—the aforementioned Brees and Matt Ryan of the Falcons.
Surprisingly, the Panthers have done well on defense and have done their part to keep the team in games this year. The defensive front is getting pressure, and the secondary is being opportunistic in breaking up plays or picking off passes.
Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Captain Munnerlyn have been all over the field making their presence known and playing at a high level. Mike Mitchell has been a welcome addition to the secondary, and the Panthers may have found undrafted free agent gold in safety Robert Lester and cornerback Melvin White.
This defense does not give up a lot of points, and opponents are scoring an average of 14 against the Panthers. If this trend continues, Carolina will be very dangerous down the stretch.
The Offense is Consistent and Balanced
Mike Shula may be extremely more conservative in his play calling than his predecessor, Rob Chudzinski. However, the running game looks like it has been restored and DeAngelo Williams has enjoyed the status of being a featured back. The only knock against Williams this season has been his lack of touchdowns, as he has only one score through seven games. That is not to say his contributions are few. The Carolina offense has favored heavy doses of Mike Tolbert in the red zone and goal line situations this year. However, Williams is still on pace for a 1,000 yards rushing this season.
Both running backs have been good for the Panthers when it comes to running the ball and catching it. In the past, Williams was not much of a pass catching running back, but with the absence of Jonathan Stewart, that has changed and he has become more involved in the passing game.
Speaking of Stewart, he is almost ready to return to the field and could do so as early as November 3rd, when Carolina plays Atlanta. If he is the productive Stewart of old, the Panthers will get a huge boost to their offense, and Shula will have a luxury not afforded to many other teams in the league—three quality running backs on one roster.
On the other side of the equation is Cam Newton. The passing attack either thrives or dies under his watch, but during the Panthers three-game winning streak, he has been consistent and has done a lot without having to produce big numbers.
Per ProFootballReference.com, Newton has thrown for 667 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. Additionally, he has kept his completion percentage above 70 during his last three games. Newton hasn't thrown for over 300 yards, nor has he had to be the one to make things happen on every down. What he is doing is maintaining ball control and limiting his mistakes. His growth has become quite noticeable this season, and he should continue to get better.
The Carolina receiving corps is becoming an asset as Steve Smith continues to be a defensive headache for opponents. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn are proving themselves as capable pass catchers and down field blockers. Tight end Greg Olsen is still one of the best at his position and is a reliable target for Newton if he gets into trouble.
After a slow start, it would appear the offense has finally started to come together.
Ron Rivera's Boldness
One can no longer refer to head coach Ron Rivera as a conservative, play it safe strategist. For a man whose seat is still very much warm, his philosophy is do what it takes to win. He has been more open to going for it on fourth down, and if Carolina is in their opponent's territory, chances are they will try for the first down if they face a fourth and short situation.
Rivera's bold play calling has paid off, as he has been the benefactor of three wins after squandering a couple of opportunities in the first few weeks of the season. Going against some the league's best teams shouldn't change his current style of coaching.
As it stands, it's playoffs or bust for Rivera and the Panthers.
Carolina Can Hang with the Best
While the schedule becomes increasingly difficult for Carolina, they have proven they can compete with the league's best. That much was apparent against Seattle, and if DeAngelo Williams doesn't fumble deep inside the red zone, the outcome of that game may have been different. However, the fact they held one of the best teams to only 12 points speaks volumes about the strength and resolve of the Carolina defense.
Yes, it's a small sample, but the Panthers have been in every game they have played this season, and despite a 22-6 defeat to Arizona, Carolina has kept every matchup close. If the Panthers are to be victorious in November, they will have to win the games they are suppose to (Atlanta) and continue playing smart, consistent and mistake free football.
Carolina's season is far from over, and it is way too early to speculate about their destiny. Yes, they are in the playoff mix. Yes, they are playing some of the best football of the Ron Rivera era. However, none of that will matter if they fall flat in November or cave in December.
Considering the team's success in December with Rivera at the helm, a strong November will go a long way in helping the Panthers playoff chances. A split of the November schedule helps their wild-card chances. A winning record during that month will make a case for them to be in the running for the division title.
Ultimately, Carolina's performance in the month of November will serve as notice to the rest of the league or set the stage for another disappointing season.