It’s that time of year again. As Thanksgiving approaches, with families planning get-togethers and Christmas music starting to play on the radio, the NFL landscape is changing shape. It’s the time during the season when the pretenders get weeded out and start thinking about the draft, while the true contenders establish themselves and their unique identity. It’s the time of year when the high-flying passing schemes of the warm fall give way to the old school methods. As the cold winds of December come in, the balls get harder and the hits hurt more, making the running game and defense that much more important.
Tough teams with tough players and tough defenses win games in the winter, and the Carolina Panthers certainly have all those ingredients. With a defense at the top of the league, an offense committed to the running game and tough, fiery players like Steve Smith, the Panthers have everything a playoff team needs. And every great playoff team needs momentum, the force that earns sixth-seeds the Lombardi Trophy, and Carolina has more of that than anyone right now. As the weather has gotten colder, the Panthers have only gotten hotter, riding a seven-game win streak. While other teams are losing players to injury or suspension, the Panthers keep getting stronger.
All of this must be taken with a grain of salt, of course. Every team loves to succeed, but the greatest trait a franchise (and fanbase for that matter) can have is humility; the ability to recognize one’s weaknesses. While Carolina has been able to win their last three games against tough competition, they’ve also shed a light on some glaring weaknesses. The offensive line is an issue, cut deeply by injury, and they have failed to protect Cam Newton the past few games. The secondary was also exposed on Sunday, with the loss of Charles Johnson preventing the pass rush from covering up the issue.
The Panthers most certainly have weaknesses, but they have all the strengths of a true contender. They will continue to rise as long as they stick to their identity: defense, run game, Cam. Now keep in mind, while some teams may be slipping, others are rising as well. The last team that Carolina lost to, the Arizona Cardinals, are one such team, and they may become a problem in the playoffs.