The Carolina Panthers have an unusual ability that could win them the Super Bowl this year.
For the most part, since Week Seven against the Saints, they have been able neutralize their opponent's biggest strength, no matter what it is.
In their 30-7 blowout victory, the Panthers held Saints QB Drew Brees, the heart and soul of New Orleans' offense, to 231 yards on 21-of-39 completions. He didn't throw for a touchdown but was picked off once.
Saints RBs Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister combined for 102 yards on the ground on only 18 carries, but neither scored. New Orleans' only score came on FB Mike Karney's one-yard run on the first play of the second quarter.
Carolina was able to virtually eliminate Drew Brees—and subsequently the Saints' pass offense—from the equation, and won handily as a result.
True, but by the time they had played the Falcons, it was late in the season. And they got hot. And getting hot late in the season is the often the key to making that final push for the playoffs and getting deep into the playoffs.
On Nov. 30, the Panthers went into an important rebound game against the Packers at Lambeau Field. At that time, the Packers had one of the NFL's strongest pass defenses.
However, the Packers knew the Panthers wanted to run the ball on them, especially since Green Bay's run defense was widely denounced. So the Pack stacked the box against the run, forcing the Panthers to pass. The Packers' plan didn't work.
While far from spectacular, Carolina field general Jake Delhomme completed just over 70 percent of his 17 passes for 177 yards (and no picks). In particular, late in the game, Delhomme and receiver Steve Smith found each other for a couple huge pass plays that set up two DeAngelo Williams touchdowns, one that tied the score at 28 and another that put the Panthers in the lead for good at 35-31.
DeAngelo Williams and Travelle Wharton got most of the credit for the win because of their work in a Panthers running game that scored four touchdowns, but the Panthers would've lost that game if those two big passes hadn't set up easy, short-range touchdowns for Williams late in the fourth quarter. And they did it against a vaunted Packers pass defense.
Then the Panthers were slated to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Dec. 8, on Monday Night Football. The Buccaneers at that point had the fourth-best run defense in the league.
Despite the fact that the Bucs were supposed to have one of the best rush defenses in the league, the Panthers ran all over them for 299 yards and four touchdowns. The only reason that the Panthers didn't rush for more than 300 yards on Tampa Bay is because Jake Delhomme was sacked for a two-yard loss early in the game after he should've thrown the ball away.
The Panthers rode their sensational rushing performance to a huge division win over the Bucs, and they did it by attacking Tampa's biggest strength.
Last week against the Broncos, the Panthers faced a top-three pass offense led by QB Jay Cutler. Even worse, the Panthers' secondary had struggled the past few weeks; most notably, against the Bucs, whose receiver Antonio Bryant was able to burn Carolina for 200 yards receiving and two touchdowns on just nine catches.
After the Broncos' first two drives resulted in a touchdown and field goal; respectively, the Panthers tightened their coverage tremendously, holding Cutler to just 12 completions out of 22 attempts for 79 yards and an interception but no touchdowns. Denver was subsequently held scoreless for the rest of the game. More to the point, Denver only made it across midfield twice the rest of the game.
The Panthers ended up winning that game 30-10. But even 30 points may not have been enough to outscore the Broncos' high-powered offense had the pass defense not shut Jay Cutler down.
You see the trend? In every big win, the Panthers took away their opponent's greatest strength. It didn't matter what the other team was best at; the Panthers took it away.
The past two weeks, against the Buccaneers and Broncos, in particular, the Panthers won big because they took Tampa's run defense and Denvers' pass offense out of the equation.
Being able to neutralize what an opponent does best is the result of being a well-rounded team.
Well-rounded teams have the best chances to win the Super Bowl. Of course, it also helps if you're on a hot streak.