The end of Monday night’s game between the Panthers and Patriots can be debated until the cows come home. The Panthers’ credentials among the NFL’s elite can not.
Whether there should have or have not been one more play to decide a victor on Monday, the Panthers were the clear winners of the night. After taking down a mix of powder puff teams — Atlanta, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay, who have a combined 10-30 record — to start their current six-game winning streak, the NFL’s hottest team was seen as something of an impostor in the postseason conversation. Back-to-back wins against the two Super Bowl runners-up, and two of the NFL’s premier teams, though, has shut up those critics.
An ugly win over the 49ers in Week 10 lent some credibility to their cause, but it was Monday’s win against the Patriots that finally confirmed the Panthers’ place in the pantheon of NFL teams this season.
The defense, which ranks among the best in football, was given its toughest test of the season with New England. Tom Brady is unquestionably the best quarterback they’ve faced through 10 games, and Rob Gronkowski is the single-best receiving threat. Yet, while Brady worked with his usual surgeon-like precision and Gronkowski commanded extra attention over the middle, the Panthers were able to withstand the challenge.
Carolina’s front-seven pressured Brady all night, hitting him a half-dozen times and sacking him twice, and the secondary limited the opportunities for the likes of Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson (combined for 21 of Brady’s 40 targets). The Panthers also kept Brady and the Patriots from hitting on any of the big plays they thrive on. The Patriots managed just three plays of 20-plus yards in Carolina, with only one going for more than 25 yards.
While the defense deserves credit for its outstanding play, Cam Newton and the offense deserve just as much praise for their effort against the Patriots’ top-10 defense, especially rebounding off such a dismal game in San Francisco the week before. Newton warrants the lion’s share of the glory, too, as the 24-year-old has already matured into the type of leader that many thought he could never be.
Upon entering the NFL, Newton was immediately labeled as selfish, immature, disingenuous and an egomaniac, among other things. Those notions took hold with players around the league, too, as fellow Pro Bowlers noted that Newton had a “diva attitude” and acted like a total jerk during his lone appearance in 2011. Newton has displayed some of those character flaws on occasion last season as well, but it seems he’s finally matured into the leader the Panthers need to succeed.
Newton has been a much more precise and cautious passer this season, and he’s finally putting the team’s success ahead of his own. That has been obvious this season. Newton is on pace to finish 2013 with career lows in passing attempts, passing yards, carries and rushing yards. Yet, he’s also on pace for career bests in completion percentage (63.2 percent), passing touchdowns (projected to throw 25) and turnovers (12). His commitment to the cause has been even more evident during the current six-game winning streak.
Before his apparent transformation in Week 5, Newton was averaging 32 passing attempts per game, completing just 58 percent of his passes and had thrown six touchdowns to five interceptions. In the six games since, though, he’s cut his attempts per game down to 29, has a completion percentage of 67 and has tossed 10 touchdowns to just three picks.
While he’s sacrificing some opportunities in favor of offensive balance, Newton is actually becoming a more efficient and effective quarterback as well as the leader that Carolina needs. His leadership was never more obvious than during the Panthers’ game-winning drive on Monday. Cool, calm and collected, looking more like a 13-year veteran than a three-year vet, Newton led the Panthers on a 13-play, 82-yard, six-minute drive down the field to take the lead, leaving Brady with less than a minute on the clock to work his magic. The drive showed Newton’s poise, patience and persistence as he set them up for Ted Ginn Jr.’s eventual 25-yard score.
The Panthers already boasted a Super Bowl-caliber defense, we knew that before Monday’s win over the Patriots. With Newton’s emergence as both a passer and leader, Carolina also has the quarterback capable of getting them to New York come February.
The Panthers are new to this level of success, and typically teams need some playoff seasoning before getting over that Super Bowl hump. But the Panthers look very much like the Seahawks of last season or the 49ers of 2011. They have all the right pieces in place to make some noise in the postseason, and, with landmark wins against premier teams like the Niners and Patriots, maybe even find their way to the Super Bowl.