Hey Carolina, welcome to the club.
After a 1-3 start to the season, the Panthers looked destined for another dismal year mired in mediocrity, and Ron Rivera seemed headed on the fast track to the unemployment line. Six weeks later, the Panthers are all grown up.
Cam Newton is finally taking care of the football and has matured into a well-rounded quarterback and team player — if you’d believe that. Mike Tolbert and DeAngelo Williams look like the most recent example of thunder and lightning, and Jonathan Stewart will only add to that mix. Steve Smith has been reliable. Brandon LaFell has been a surprising revelation. Oh, and the Panthers boast the best defense in the NFL — sorry, Kansas City. Stir all that up in a mixing bowl, and the Panthers seem to have all the ingredients of a team destined for playoff football. On Sunday, they confirmed that suspicion.
It was an offensive struggle all afternoon in San Francisco on Sunday, but the Panthers gritted out a 10-9 win against the 49ers and proved why they rightfully belong among the NFL’s elite teams.
Newton wasn’t the epitome of efficiency through the air (16-for-32 for 169 yards and an interception) or on the ground (seven carries for 17 yards) in the win, but he kept the Panthers competitive all afternoon and didn’t make the mistakes he became known for in his first three seasons. With Newton and the offense stymied all afternoon, Carolina did what it does best, leaning on its defense to force a couple of turnovers and contain Colin Kaepernick.
Defensive end Charles Johnson, linebacker Luke Kuechly and the rest of the Panthers’ front seven did a tremendous job of making Kaepernick’s life miserable. They sacked Kaepernick six times on Sunday, held him to just 16 rushing yards on four carries and limited him to a career-worst 91 passing yards. It was as if he was just another ordinary quarterback. Aside from Frank Gore, who ran the ball 16 times for 82 yards on Sunday, the Panthers kept the Niners’ other offensive weapons in check.
Despite Newton’s pick and the Panthers’ best attempt at self sabotage late in the fourth quarter — a pair of fumbles with under two minutes remaining — the offense held strong, and they were able to pull out the win in a hostile environment on the road.
With Sunday’s win, the Panthers have now won five straight and appear to be gaining confidence in themselves with each passing week. They’re in prime position to make a playoff push and could even vie for the NFC South crown, as they’re now just one game back of the Saints.
There were some questions about their viability as contenders, even as they sat at 5-3 in the standings, coming into this weekend, as they had yet to beat a team with a winning record this season after knocking off the Giants, Vikings, Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons coming into this weekend. But they had also given the Seahawks all they could handle in Week 1, coming up just short in a 12-7 loss. They lost on some last-second heroics in Buffalo in Week 2. And they dropped a stinker to the Cardinals in Arizona. But after four consecutive convincing wins against lesser teams, their win against the 49ers on Sunday should be evidence enough that they have finally arrived.
The Panthers’ remaining schedule is pretty favorable, too, featuring a mix of the Patriots, Dolphins, Bucs, Saints (twice), Jets and Falcons. They could well win all of those games, but even if they only pull out four of their final seven, the Panthers should be in good enough position to grab at least a wild-card spot.
There’s no need to get ahead of ourselves and start crowning Carolina as Super Bowl favorites — although, the thought isn’t as crazy as it might seem — but it’s time to accept them as one of the NFL’s top teams.