The Carolina Panthers are now 12-4, champions of the NFC South—one of the two most competitive divisions in the NFL— for the first time since 2005 (and subsequently have broken the NFC South curse), and owners of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs as well as a first-round bye followed by a playoff game in the divisional round at Bank of America Stadium.
If there is just one reason why the Panthers are where they are right now—poised to make a run at a possible first Super Bowl title in a brief 12-year franchise history—their running game.
The offensive line got bigger and more physical last offseason, the team cut ties with last year's starting RB, DeShaun Foster, promoted last year's backup, DeAngelo Williams, to the starting role, and drafted power running back Jonathan Stewart with the 13th pick in the NFL draft in addition to behemoth right tackle Jeff Otah.
In other words, the Panthers built the foundation of a proficient running game that is now one of the best three in the league.
The success of this running game is fundamental to the Panthers' success. When DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have combined for at least 100 yards, the Panthers' only losses are to the Giants and Falcons, whose running games are just as good as Carolina's.
Williams and Stewart have put together the best rushing season in franchise history. Williams has broken the team single season record for rushing yards (was 1,444; is now 1,515) and single game record for running yards (was 178; now is 186). Stewart broke the team record for rushing touchdowns scored by a rookie weeks ago.
In the context of the NFL, the duo helped the Panthers finish the season leading the league in rushing touchdowns (30, the leading figure by six scores), third in total rushing yards (2,437), tied for second in average yards per carry (4.8), third in yards per game (152.3), tied for the lead in runs of 20-plus yards, (24), and sole possession of the lead in runs for 40 yards or longer (6).
But of course, there can't be just one reason for a playoff team's success. Poise has been nearly as crucial to the Panthers' regular season success. Carolina is 5-1 in games decided by seven points or less. Poise is a huge factor in close games. Of those six games, all five victories were come-from-behind wins. Some even came down to the last drive. Two were decided on the final play of the game.
Home-field advantage has been huge for the Panthers. The Cats were 8-0 at Bank of America Stadium this season, the first time since 1996 that they have done so. The Cats were the only team to post an undefeated home record in the NFL this season. And fortunately for the Panthers, they will get to play their first game of the playoffs at home.
Kudos to Steve Smith. First of all, he did everything he could to heal his relationship with Lucas after he sucker-punched him in training camp. He served his suspension, then went about his business like a true professional. His professionalism has paid off. Even after being suspended the first two games of the season, he still ranks third in the NFL in receiving yardage with 1,421 yards and leads the league in yards per catch among receivers who have at least 75 receptions (18.2).
Kudos to Muhsin Muhammad as well. Without his blocking on the outside, the Panthers' rushing attack wouldn't have nearly as much explosive potential. His blocks often turn what would ordinarily be a five- or 10-yard gain into a 20-yard-or-longer pickup. He's a big reason why the Panthers are the league's most explosive running game and why Williams had a shot to tie or break a 50-year-old NFL rushing record.
Head coach John Fox did a great job leading this team. He kept it focused and it rewarded him for his efforts again and again.
DE Julius Peppers came alive again, and was better than ever. He did everything this season—dropping into coverage, rushing the quarterback, stopping the run at times, and taking up multiple blockers to create opportunities for other guys to make plays. He racked up a career-high 14.5 sacks and forced five fumbles this season.
Linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason both had excellent seasons, combining for 251 tackles. Davis had 3.5 sacks, Beason three interceptions.
The secondary is a point of concern. Tons of potential interceptions were dropped. Ken Lucas and Charles Godfrey's mutual coverage skills were suspect for much of the season as the two learned each other's coverage habits and tendencies. That should get better as they play together more. It didn't help that Godfrey, a rookie, was trying to learn a thousand things at a million miles per hour for a good part of the season.
Despite the fact that the Panthers have the tools to be good at run defense, this area of the defense dismal. True, not many individual running backs rushed for 100-plus yards against this unit, but it had a nasty habit of letting ancient, washed-up running backs dominate it. Also, with more teams giving carries to more than one RB, holding one particular back to under 100 yards isn't particularly special.
More than anything, whiffed tackles or tackles broken too easily was the problem with the run defense. I can't tell you how many times I remember a few Panthers moving in on the ball carrier for a tackle, but nobody made it. It was agonizing to watch.
The MVP of the Panthers' regular season? CB Ken Lucas
True, he's struggled in coverage at times this year. But if he hadn't forgiven Steve Smith for his majority role in the training camp brawl that earned Smith a two-game suspension at the beginning of the regular season, the team's moral would never have been there. It wouldn't have been a team working together like it has all season; it could have been a bunch of guys trying to do it all on their own—who knows?
But Ken Lucas—and head coach John Fox, for dealing a quick suspension to Smith so the other players wouldn't think he was getting special treatment because of what he could do on the field—half saved the Panthers' season before it even started. Of course, Smith did his part, too, by doing everything he could to heal the relationship. But if Lucas had forced his teammates to pick sides, it would have torn the team apart and sent in spiraling out of control before anyone could have known what to do.
Honorable mention: RB DeAngelo Williams
No. 34 has had a true breakout season this year. He is now one of the most dynamic running backs in the NFL, and one of more, if not most, feared.