If the season were to end today, the 5-3 Carolina Panthers would sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. That’s an amazing feat considering Carolina just moved above .500 for the first time since 2008 with a Week 8 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Carolina is riding a four-game winning streak and has won five of its last six games. If you go back to the 2012 season and count the last eight games there, the Panthers are 10-6 over their last 16 games. This season they’ve built a top-10 offense, a top-five defense and expectations are high.
It’s easy to see why. But the Panthers haven’t dealt with expectations and hype all that well in recent memory. Don’t forget center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer guaranteeing a Super Bowl victory prior to the 2012 season.
The Panthers finished 7-9 that season.
Yes it does. It feels like a team that has an opportunity, that has a chance to go forward and be better. Again, we're not anywhere (close to) where we need to be. There is a lot for us to do, a lot for us to learn.
Rivera didn’t actually say “playoffs,” but his affirmative answer was direct and the question posed was, “Is this starting to feel like a playoff team?” That’s about as close as Rivera can get to saying his team has that “feel.”
And Rivera should know.
As a 23-year-old linebacker, Rivera played on the 1985 Chicago Bears, a team that won Super Bowl XX. He was also the defensive coordinator for the 2006 Bears that lost Super Bowl XLI to the Indianapolis Colts. Rivera has enough experience to know what a Super Bowl team feels like.
So does his staff. According to Bryan Strickland, a senior writer for the Panthers, Carolina can boast nine coaches who have either played or coached in a Super Bowl. That’s over half the coaching staff.
|Carolina Coaches with Super Bowl Experience|
|Coach||As Player||As Coach|
|Ron Rivera||Chicago Bears, 1985 (linebacker)||Chicago Bears, 2006 (defensive coordinator)|
|Ricky Proehl||St. Louis Rams, 2001 & Indianapolis Colts, 2006 (wide receiver)|
|Ray Brown||Washington Redskins, 1991 (tackle)|
|John Matsko||St. Louis Rams, 2001 (offensive line)|
|Al Holcomb||New York Giants, 2011 (defensive asst.)|
|Steve Wilks||Chicago Bears, 2006 (defensive backs)|
|Bruce DeHaven||Buffalo Bills, 1991 (special teams)|
|Sean McDermott||Philadelphia Eagles, 2004 (safeties)|
|Jim Skipper||New York Giants, 2000 (asst. head coach)|
It’s these nine coaches who are going to do a lot when it comes to keeping this team grounded.
When the proverbial playoff cat is let out of the bag—Rivera wasn’t responsible for that, the team’s current winning streak gave license to the media to start talking postseason—it’s very hard to keep it contained. With eight games still remaining on the schedule the Panthers shouldn’t be worried about the playoffs; that can be a sure-fire way to screw up along the way.
Carolina has to focus on winning football games, and the team already has a blueprint for that. It starts with an already stout defense.
The Panthers rank second in the NFL on defense in terms of rushing yards allowed per game (79.1) and 10th in passing yards allowed per game (220.8). If you look at Carolina’s last six games, the defense has allowed just 54 points combined. The Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9 gave up 55 points in one game to the New England Patriots.
It’s rare that a defense that’s so stingy in allowing points is accompanied by an offense that’s so adept at scoring them. But Carolina’s offense has come alive of late.
In five of its last six games Carolina has scored at least 30 points and had an average margin of victory of 24 points in those five wins. According to TeamRankings.com, the Panthers rank fifth over the last three weeks, averaging 31.7 points per game.
|Top Scoring Teams over Last 3 Weeks|
|Team||Points Per Game|
|New England Patriots||36.3|
|San Francisco 49ers||35.0|
|Green Bay Packers||31.7|
Carolina’s now-prolific offense, along with its punishing defense, has the Panthers on the road to the playoffs. But it’s still a long road with some major speed bumps. Not only is it going to take a group of coaches with playoff experience to keep this team in check, there are some players in the locker room who are going to have to step up and be a calming effect.
Wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross both played on Carolina’s 2003 Super Bowl XXXVIII team that lost to New England, 32-29. Smith and Gross are respected veteran leaders who can keep the locker room grounded.
Wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon can help. Ginn played with the San Francisco 49ers last season who lost Super Bowl XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens. Hixon played for the New York Giants who won Super Bowls XLII after the 2007 season and XLVI after the 2011 season. Linebacker Chase Blackburn was on those New York teams with Hixon.
There are a couple of recent collegiate champions in the locker room too. Rookie safety Robert Lester won three national titles with the Alabama Crimson Tide. Quarterback Cam Newton won back-to-back national titles in 2010 and '11 with Blinn Junior College and the Auburn Tigers, respectively.
It shouldn’t be terribly difficult to keep this team grounded and focused with playoff expectations on the rise. If the players and coaches who have “been there before” can’t do it with experience, the level of focus that Carolina will have to maintain over the next eight weeks with a brutal schedule should be enough.
The Panthers have earned the right after eight games to talk about the playoffs. But it will be the next eight games where this team proves it belongs. And it won’t be easy.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.
Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.