There can be no more doubting the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers have been considered outside contenders for a playoff spot for the last few weeks, but today’s win over the San Francisco 49ers solidified the Panthers as the leading candidate for a Wild Card Spot in the AFC. The Panthers’ stellar defense was on display in the 10-9 road victory, and the Panthers are now riding high on a five game win streak.
The Panthers are currently in 5th place in the NFC, just ahead of the 49ers and the rest of the Wild Card field. Their elite defense is largely responsible for their success, as the Panthers rank 2nd in the NFL in both total defense and scoring defense. Led by Luke Kuechly and Charles Johnson, the Panthers held the Niners to just 151 yards of offense and rendered Colin Kaepernick completely ineffective.
It wasn’t a banner day for the Carolina offense, but Cam Newton has been making huge strides over the last month, and the Panthers still have a very strong rushing attack. Newton is becoming the type of quarterback that can go out and win games consistently, and his completion percentage, quarterback rating and touchdown to interception ratio are all career highs.
If Carolina is to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, they have to continue doing the things that have gotten them to 6-3. That starts with defense, and right now their defense has given them an opportunity to win every game. The offense is still developing, but the Panthers have been getting much better on that side of the ball, and continued progression from Newton will make Carolina a very well rounded football team.
Going forward, the Panthers face a very challenging schedule, including two matchups with the New Orleans Saints and a visit from the New England Patriots. Achieving consistency is the greatest challenge for a young, developing team, and the Panthers will be tested in their last seven games. Their playoff chances will be determined by their ability to avoid frustration when their winning streak ends and rebound if they lose any of the big games they have down the stretch.
Right now, there is no reason to doubt the Panthers’ ability to handle the challenges ahead, and they have to be considered a favorite for a playoff spot. The NFC is very competitive and will come down to the wire, but with their defense and the rapidly improving Newton, the Panthers should be able to find their way into the postseason.