How Many Statement Games Are the Carolina Panthers Going to Have to Play?

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How Many Statement Games Are the Carolina Panthers Going to Have to Play?
USA Today

The Carolina Panthers have a lot of things going for them as the team heads into Week 11 play.  The Panthers have won five straight and six of their last seven games. They rank second in the NFL in scoring defense (12.8 points per game allowed), second in run defense (82 yards per game allowed) and fifth in passing defense (201.3 yards per game allowed).

But still, the Panthers are akin to the great comedian Rodney Dangerfield. They get no respect.

If the season ended today and the playoffs started immediately, Carolina would nab the fifth seed in the NFC and play the Dallas Cowboys in a wild-card game. The Panthers can also boast a 28 points per game scoring average since their winning streak started and the 10th-best running game (127.8 yards per game average) in the league.

Still, when asked whether this Carolina team is a legitimate Super Bowl contender, the responses can vary from ‘maybe’ to ‘still need to see more’ to the ever popular ‘the Panthers haven’t really won a big game.’

Carolina’s Week 10 win over the San Francisco 49ers was a big win. The 10-9 victory showed that the Panthers could beat a playoff-caliber team and that the defense could slam the door shut on an offense that had been averaging 34.8 points per game over its previous five games.

Because their resume isn’t chock-full of games like this, the Panthers still aren’t being taken with the seriousness they deserve.

Carolina’s four wins prior to San Francisco came at the expense of four teams with a current combined record of 9-28. Add in the Week 3 win over the New York Giants and Carolina’s five wins prior to Week 10 came against teams that are sitting now at 12-34.

Carolina Panthers: 2013 Wins
Opponent Score Current Record
New York Giants 38-0 3-6
Minnesota Vikings 35-10 2-7
St. Louis Rams 30-15 4-6
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31-13 1-8
Atlanta Falcons 34-10 2-7
San Francisco 49ers 10-9 6-3

NFL.com

That’s a lot of wins over some raunchy teams. But they’re still wins. And there’s not a playoff-bound team that’s only won against top-notch opponents.

The Seattle Seahawks, the NFC’s current top seed, have nine wins on the season but only three have come against teams that currently have a winning record. The combined record of Seattle’s last five opponents (all wins) is 16-31. No one is asking the Seahawks for more proof they can make a Super Bowl run.

The New Orleans Saints, the NFC’s current No. 2 seed, have seven wins on the season but only two have come against teams that currently have a winning record. The last five wins for the Saints have come against teams with a combined 22-25 record. That’s a higher quality of opponent than the Seahawks and Panthers, but it's still not exactly picking on the biggest kid on the playground.

2013 NFC Playoff Contenders: Last 5 Wins
Team Current Playoff Spot Opponents Record (Last 5 Wins) Pct.
Seattle Seahawks 1 16-31 .340
New Orleans Saints 2 22-25 .468
Detroit Lions 3 22-25 .468
Dallas Cowboys 4 17-30 .362
Carolina Panthers 5 15-31 .326
San Francisco 49ers 6 16-31 .340

NFL.com

And yet no one questions the possibility that these Saints can make it to the Super Bowl. Especially after Sunday’s shellacking of the Cowboys.

Why is Carolina different from the front-runners of the NFC?

It’s possible their recent track record has something to do with it. Seattle was 11-5 last season and a fourth-quarter, comeback drive from the Atlanta Falcons away from playing in the NFC Championship. Take away the 7-9 season last year the Saints endured without their head coach Sean Payton and New Orleans is one of the more winning teams of recent memory. The Saints enjoyed three years of double-digit wins and a Super Bowl title from 2009 to 2011.

The Panthers, until Week 8 of the 2013 season, hadn’t been above .500 since 2008. Carolina head coach Ron Rivera’s coaching seat is no longer hot, but you can still see the burn marks around the edges because it’s been glowing red for some time.

Forgive the establishment for needing to see a little more evidence from a Carolina team that hasn’t been a player in the playoff conversation for some time. But don’t wait too long to jump aboard their bandwagon.

If Carolina can beat a visiting New England Patriots team on Monday night, it’ll be time to give the Panthers some serious credit. Not only would that win mark two wins in a row over potential playoff teams, it would show the NFL world the Panthers could knock off one of the best coaches in the league in Bill Belichick and one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play in Tom Brady.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

That’s the kind of clout the Panthers need. And it should be enough at that point to call the Panthers Super Bowl contenders. But after the New England game comes two games down the road against the Saints.

While this week’s New England game should give the Panthers enough juice to get the attention they deserve, there are still statement games looming. Weeks 14 and 16 (both against New Orleans) will not only go a long way toward figuring out who will win the NFC South, it will tell us if Carolina can win tough games down the stretch.

Carolina soon enough should be able to stop having to prove itself to the media on its playoff potential, but the Panthers are never going to have to stop proving themselves. That won’t happen until Feb. 2 at MetLife Stadium in New York, with a Super Bowl win.

 

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.

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