2014 NFL Playoffs: 5 Reasons Why You Don’t Want to Face the Panthers
Carolina Panthers Are Talented and Dangerous
The Carolina Panthers follow a winning formula every week, and it carried them to 11 wins in their last 12 contests to earn the NFC South title, the second seed in the NFC and a first-round bye. Nobody really took notice of Carolina through the first half of the 2013 season, but a hard-fought 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers – the Panthers' opponent in the Divisional Round Sunday – garnered Carolina respect. A come-from-behind thriller on the road against the defending conference champs tends to make people pay attention.
So after struggling to a 23-41 record in the previous four seasons combined, Carolina returns to the postseason for the first time since 2008. This group is poised to ride the momentum and confidence from the regular season and take it straight through the playoffs.
Though it takes a team effort to go 12-4 in the NFL, it’s clear the defense is the backbone and driving force behind the Panthers' success. The defense allowed just 15.1 points per game and 301.2 yards per contest during the regular season, good for second in the NFL in both categories. One factor in the team’s stifling performance is the ability to shut down the final 20 yards of the field. Carolina’s enemies scored a touchdown on only 41 percent of their red zone trips, the third-best mark in football.
With a hungry core of players led by quarterback Cam Newton and an intimidating defensive presence, the Panthers are a dangerous team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.
5. Luke Kuechly is a Game Changer
First team All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly tilts the field in favor of Carolina's defense and forces the opposing offense to game plan around him. The second-year pro boasts terrific instincts and solid read-and-react skills to put himself in position to impact nearly every play. With 93 tackles, seven passes defended, four interceptions and two sacks during the regular season, Kuechly will make his presence felt in a variety of ways in the playoffs.
4. Stout Run Defense
I'm well aware the NFL favors the pass and is a quarterback-driven league; however, stopping the run is still an important factor in victory. Carolina gives up less than 87 rushing yards per game and has allowed a mere four touchdowns on the ground all season. The Panthers' stinginess in the run game will be vital as their next foe, San Francisco, was third in the NFL in rushing yards on the year. Meanwhile, the top-seeded Seattle Seahawks were fourth on the ground, and the final NFC squad, the New Orleans Saints, ran for 185 yards in their Wild Card victory.
3. Cam Newton: Playmaker Ready for the Next Step
It's not always pretty, but Cam Newton has been finding ways to produce and collect wins throughout the campaign. A strong arm, amazing mobility and keen awareness of his surroundings all make the third-year QB a frightening opponent to face. While his passing yards (3,379) and rushing yards (585) dropped, the dual-threat and ability to make something out of nothing led to a career-best 12 wins, including four game-winning drives. Newton had career-highs in completion percentage (61.7) and touchdown passes (24) in 2013, adding greater dimension to his impressive skill-set. Next on the checklist is a few playoff victories.
2. Success Winning Late, Close Games
There's something about a team learning to pull out tight ballgames in the final minutes that makes you believe the squad has a major advantage. Most postseason contests go down to the wire with players coming through when the clock is winding down and the team needs a play. Led by Newton, the Panthers produced four wins thanks to fourth-quarter comebacks with five of their 12 victories by four or less points. This group has faced adversity, battled back and proven the ability to fight through the pressure of close games to come out on top. Needing a late rally or holding onto a slim lead in the fourth quarter will be no problem for Carolina.
1. Sacks, Turnovers the Ultimate Factor
Carolina led the NFL in sacks with 60, constantly pressuring opposing quarterbacks and taking them to the turf. Greg Hardy (15 sacks) and Charles Johnson (11 sacks) wreak havoc on the quarterback and can swing a game's momentum in a heartbeat. While the sacks are obviously beneficial, it's the uneasiness, doubt and panic a quarterback feels from that relentless pass rush that is paid off with more valuable dividends.
From 2002-2008 in the NFL regular season, the team who won the turnover battle had a record of 810-220-2 (.786), and it's only magnified in the playoffs. The Panthers forced a turnover to end 16.3 percent of their opponents' drives, the second-best mark in the NFL. On the other side of the ball, Carolina was third-best at protecting the pigskin. With only 19 turnovers all season, the Panthers forced teams to go on lengthy drives against their tough defense. Meanwhile, the pressure they put on opposing offenses led the Panthers to collect 20 interceptions (fifth in the NFL), a key number in a pass-friendly league. This all led to Carolina's +0.7 edge in turnover margin, good for fourth in all of football.
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