The Carolina Panthers have unfortunately become the punching bag of the NFC South over the past few seasons, with the team seemingly in rebuilding mode ever since Jake Delhomme left. Panther nation had hoped that the arrival of Cam Newton and Ron Rivera would cause a turnaround, but the team only improved from embarrassingly bad to mediocre with a strong helping of fourth-quarter heartbreak. Things have begun to look up recently, though, with the Panthers beating the New York Giants in record fashion, due in large part to adjustments made by Rivera and new offensive coordinator Mike Shula to their normally conservative game plans.
While Panthers new perspective on offense, combined with their sudden dominance on the defensive front, will surely contribute greatly to their future success, the Panthers greatest advantage right now is the current weakness of the NFC South. The division has been one of the NFL‘s most competitive divisions in recent years, with a new division winner emerging almost every year. The New Orleans Saints have returned to premier status in the division with the return of Sean Payton and will likely be the division winners, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have sunk to the bottom under the rule of Josh Freeman and Greg Schiano, and the Atlanta Falcons now have a 1-3 record after 13-3 last year.
This Sunday’s game against the Cardinals is a pivotal one for the Panthers, and could act as a springboard toward the playoffs. The Panthers need to win not only continue the momentum from the Giants win, but also to gain respect in the division. The Buccaneers lost a close game to the Cardinals last week, and if the Panthers lose to them as well, then they will continue to be lumped into the bottom echelon of the division and be refused respect by their divisional contemporaries.
If the Panthers can win, though, they will stay at second in the division and will rise to .500, while the Falcons will be 2-3 at best or even a paltry 1-4 if they can somehow find a way to lose to the New York Jets. Things are looking good for the Panthers, now they just have to take control of their destiny.