The Carolina Panthers have experienced a remarkable resurgence this year, rocketing up to 5-3 following a 5-1 run and putting themselves in position to take the division lead from the New Orleans Saints; a stark contrast to the last two years.
Cam Newton has seemingly erased his decision making and accuracy problems, aside from a few hiccups last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, and the Carolina offense has transformed into a methodical, clock-burning machine. Even Ron Rivera has diverged from his conservative tactics, going for it on fourth down an unheard of seven times this season and converting on five of them, including last week’s easy touchdown to Greg Olsen.
While Carolina’s recent winning streak has generated a lot of buzz in Charlotte and around the league, the Panthers still haven’t proven that they should be considered among the top teams in the league. The Panthers have yet to defeat a winning team this year, and while they got close to knocking off mighty Seattle in Week 1, they couldn’t pull out the win in the fourth quarter, which is the trademark of a truly great team. The Panthers will have ample opportunity to prove themselves in the coming weeks, going up against the San Francisco 49ers next week, facing the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football the week after that and then they look forward to two critical matchups with the Saints, games which could determine the division.
The good news for the Panthers is that they have the tools to win these games. They say that defense wins championships, and if the Panthers have anything, it’s defense. Rivera’s defense has taken a lot of heat the past few years for their fourth-quarter meltdowns, but this year’s unit has raised their play to the top five in the league. They can shut down anyone in the league as they have all season, only surrendering 13.3 points a game.
What has been missing for the Panthers before this season is the quarterback presence, much like the Kansas City Chiefs last year. And while the Chiefs have improved that position from the outside, Newton has simply improved himself, and that has elevated Carolina to a playoff level. Only time will tell where the Panthers will go this season, but those tough games down the stretch will reveal Carolina’s worth.
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