I came to bury the NFC South, and then the Carolina Panthers buried the Atlanta Falcons.
Everything changed. Sunday's 34-3 win in Atlanta was an epic mauling, a physical dominance in every aspect of the game by the Panthers. Sure, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan did his usual big-game choke job, but this was all about the Panthers.
Carolina winning the pathetic NFC South might seem, on the surface, like dating the most handsome sportswriter, but these Panthers are nasty and for real. These aren't the NFL's stepchildren. They are one of the league's most dangerous teams.
Right now, everyone believes the Dallas Cowboys are the most challenging squad in the NFC not from Seattle. To me, the scariest team to play in all of football could be Carolina. This is not because the Panthers beat the soft Falcons. It's because they're just good. Period.
Look at the last few weeks. Everything has been trending upward for the Panthers. The offensive line has been playing better, the defense has been out of this world and the receivers are clicking.
One big reason is the toughness and talent of Cam Newton. Since a terrible game in Minnesota in late November, he's got a 96.9 rating, and that stretch includes getting into a car wreck on Dec. 9, one where he could have easily been killed. His play is inspired. You can see it. Something has clicked in him.
|Cam Newton season at a glance|
|1||at Tampa Bay||W-20-14|
|2||vs. Detroit||22-34||281||1-0||100.2||W 24-7|
|3||vs. Pittsburgh||24-35||250||1-0||98.5||L 19-37|
|4||at Baltimore||14-25||197||1-0||94.9||L 10-38|
|5||vs. Chicago||19-35||255||2-1||84.8||W 31-24|
|6||at Cincinnati||29-46||284||2-1||85.8||37-37 (OT)|
|7||at Green Bay||17-31||205||1-1||72.6||L 17-38|
|8||vs. Seattle||12-22||171||0-1||61.0||L 9-13|
|9||vs. New Orleans||10-28||151||0-1||39.4||L 10-28|
|10||at Philadelphia||25-40||306||2-3||71.5||L 21-45|
|11||vs. Atlanta||23-37||292||2-2||82.3||L 17-19|
|13||at Minnesota||18-35||194||1-1||65.7||L 13-31|
|14||at New Orleans||21-33||226||3-0||114.0||W 41-10|
|15||vs. Tampa Bay||W 19-17|
|16||vs. Cleveland||18-31||201||1-1||74.8||W 17-13|
|17||at Atlanta||10-16||114||1-0||104.7||W 34-3|
Not saying he's Cam Unitas, but a Newton who is throwing with accuracy and is back to running the football with confidence again should make teams nervous. Really nervous.
This entire Panthers team should. Go ahead and laugh at their record. Laugh at their division (actually, that's OK). Laugh at it all. But these Panthers are in play. They're legit.
The Panthers will host Arizona, and they will crush the Cardinals.
Look around the NFC and tell me who you trust exactly. The Seahawks, we trust, yes. They will be almost impossible to beat at home, but they struggled in Week 17 against a Rams team that the New York Giants basically torched. That has to cause some concern. Emphasis on some. A small amount.
Aaron Rodgers is incredible. He's Willis Reed and Joe Montana all wrapped up into one. But the Packers are a question mark as long as Rodgers is playing injured, despite his heroics and toughness.
You trust the Cardinals and their quarterback situation? You totally trust the Cowboys yet? I mean, totally trust them? Don't you need to see them win a playoff game before you fully believe?
I think the Panthers can hang with any of them. Even the Seahawks.
According to The Charlotte Observer's Jonathan Jones, Carolina cornerback Josh Norman said this after Sunday's game:
He was criticizing Carolina's detractors, and let's be honest, the Panthers deserved those detractors. Just not any longer.
What makes the Panthers special is that defense is portable. It can function in the cold of Green Bay or the rain of the Pacific Northwest. They don't care about the Cardinals' narrative—that these are the "new Cardinals." The Panthers are mean and disrespectful. It's a beautiful thing.
They torched Ryan, who is overrated anyway. They absolutely annihilated him, both physically and mentally. By the end of the third quarter, the Panthers had three takeaways, accounting for 21 points, and four sacks. The second Ryan pick-six was one of the worst throws of the day. Ryan floated it, and if you do that against this defense, it will make you pay.
The point is, these Panthers are playing as well as anyone. They have the talent, and they have something so key this time of year: momentum. Carolina was 3-8-1 before winning its last four games.
The Panthers players on the sideline in the final minutes of the game were expectantly jubilant. But there was something else. They looked as if they knew this was only the beginning.
Because it just might be. We might be seeing something special.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.