Predicting NFL’s Second Half Breakout Team: Carolina Panthers
Although not one of the first teams to come to mind when thinking of potential Super Bowl contenders, in just a few weeks the Carolina Panthers could very well be one of the hot new names to enter the discussion. The Panthers are currently on a four-game winning streak and have done so in a very convincing fashion as each of their last four victories have been decided by 15 points or more.
The reason for the turnaround of the Panthers of late is due to the increased play of both Cam Newton and the team’s defense. The Panthers recently hit on defensive stars Greg Hardy, Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short, and Luke Kuechly through the draft, so it is no wonder they are quickly rising the ranks of top defensive teams. Even though the NFL has quickly become a pass-first league, the Panthers are best at stopping the run, which is a trait that has allowed them to put more attention on stopping opponents’ passing attacks, effectively making them a top 10 overall defense in the league today.
With the team’s defense giving up an average of just 12 points per game in their four most recent contests, they likely would have emerged victorious without Newton, but the third-year quarterback’s improved play definitely hasn’t hurt. Newton was once considered one of the best athletes in the league, but now he may be proving himself as one of the best quarterbacks.
Through watching tape of the recent Carolina victories, Newton has made throwing the ball look almost effortless, yet he still gets more zip on each pass than the majority of NFL quarterbacks. Adding Newton’s recent passing success to his height, high release, and improved offensive weapons leads me to believe his recent dominance will continue as the season progresses.
Over the last four games Newton has thrown for a total of 916 yards and seven touchdowns while completing 71 percent of his passes. He has also made a difference by picking up 128 yards and another three touchdowns with his legs. We saw as a rookie Newton setting the league on fire, but now with him being a more polished passer with emerging offensive weapons, he is ready to lead the Panthers into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Through nine weeks of NFL action this season the Panthers stand at 5-3 with some of their toughest games still remaining. The Panthers have one more game against the Atlanta Falcons, whom they just beat last Sunday by 24 points, two more against the New Orleans Saints, and one each against the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots. The Panthers are currently one game behind the Saints in the NFC South standings, meaning those two games are the most important ones left to be played.
Although the Saints appeared to be one of the best teams in the NFL earlier in the year, they are coming off a disappointing loss to the New York Jets which puts the future of the NFC South into question. Newton is performing like one of the elite dual-threat quarterbacks in the league, and if he can keep up his level of play, as I expect him to, the Panthers should be the NFL’s breakout team in the second half of the season and make some noise come playoff time.