At long last, after 17 weeks of poor play, frustrating games, and inexplicable outcomes, a lone team stands atop the NFC South. It’s a testament to how much this division struggled that two-win Tampa Bay, the team that finished with the worst record in the league and the first overall pick, was still in the hunt for a division title halfway through the year.
While the Bucs are winners in a certain light (maybe or maybe not tanking in the finale to secure the top pick), the real champions are the Carolina Panthers, who routed the Atlanta Falcons on the road to win the division. The implosion by the Falcons, who won five games in the division and just one outside of it all year, led to the firing of head coach Mike Smith. The New Orleans Saints also collapsed this year, and while Drew Brees led the league in passing yards, he also threw 17 picks, leading an offense of underachievers to go with a defense of busts.
So Carolina stands alone, and looking at the three teams they beat out, it doesn’t seem like much. They enter the playoffs under .500 with a 7-8-1 record (that tie would have been a loss had Mike Nugent made an easy field goal in overtime). Two other teams had better records in the NFC, and no team in that conference in the postseason has fewer than 11 wins; no one in the AFC has fewer than 10 wins.
All of that is to say Carolina doesn’t look great winning their division and there is an argument to be made about not allowing a team under .500 to make the playoffs, or at worst host a playoff game. But they are in, they are hosting Arizona this weekend, and they are a threat. They are a threat not only to beat a club once considered the best in the league, but to win the Super Bowl. Yes indeed, here are the ten reasons why the Panthers can lift the Lombardi Trophy this come February.
10. Hot at the Right Time
For many reasons we will get to, the Panthers have dramatically improved from the start of the season to the final month. Despite Carolina going winless from October 12 until December 7, they finished the season with four straight victories. Now, those were against four teams not in the playoffs, but two of them were especially convincing and all four saw strong defensive play. The defense allowed just 43 points, the offense scored 111, and confidence can go a long way in aiding a team in the playoffs. The Panthers don’t have to be great all year, just for another month, and they sure believe they can win.
9. The Story
This is more for those finding the magic and inspiration in sports, but often a compelling and unique narrative emerges for Super Bowl contenders. Last year, the vocal Richard Sherman led a historic defense to the championship. Another year saw the Ravens stumble into the playoffs only for Joe Flacco and company to have one the greatest four-game postseason stretches ever. Forget about the two incredible catches made in each of the two Giants wins over the Patriots and during one of those seasons it looked as if Tom Coughlin would be fired. The Panthers have not only turned around their season on every front, but Newton has emerged a leader while enduring a fearful car accident. Add to it the suspension of Greg Hardy, Derek Anderson beating the Bucs twice, the Panthers topping the weakest division, and they make for the kind of fascinating story that may be talked about leading up to the big game in Glendale.
8. They Can Beat Arizona
Most people without a vested interest feel a bit bad for the Cardinals. They’re a hard team to hate, mainly because they’ve been bad for the last little while and have stand up players like Larry Fitzgerald and a likable coach in Bruce Arians. But injuries do not discriminate, and they’ve lost their top QB, their top RB, and a slew of other players on the way to losing out the division crown and earning a wild card berth. They’ve lost two straight and four of six, and it looks like Ryan Lindley will be at quarterback. If the Saints can shut down Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, what hope is there for Lindley to take to the road in the playoffs and put up points? The Cardinals defense knows they have to play great, so if they get down by 10 points in the first half, do they really have hope in a comeback by the offense?
7. They Can Beat Elite QBs
Well, they are used to them at least. The Panthers did shut down Ryan and Brees across the final months, two impressive quarterbacks better than their records, having had to carry the burden of anemic defenses on their shoulders. In a league where Kyle Orton, Mark Sanchez, Blake Bortles, Ryan Mallet, and Zach Mettenberger saw extended play, the Panthers faced off against Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, and Russell Wilson. That’s six games against Super Bowl winning quarterbacks; throw in Ryan twice and Brees, and that’s a tough challenge for any team. Lindley is first, but Rodgers, Romo, and Wilson are lying in wait. Speaking of Wilson…
6. The Panthers Can Also Beat Seattle
Ultimately the Super Bowl goes through the defending champs, and a win by the Panthers against Arizona will see them go to either Green Bay or (more likely) Seattle. Well, of any team in the NFC, the Panthers are best suited for an attempt to take down the Seahawks. That’s because it’s not done with a stellar QB or top offense, it’s done with power running game, controlling the clock, a tough defense, and well, luck (not that Luck). Curiously, the Panthers have played the Seahawks three years in a row. Yes, they lost all three times, but each was by less than a touchdown in a low scoring game: 16-12, 12-7, 13-9. The 13 points this year was Seattle’s lowest output. Carolina is familiar with Seattle, and plays a very similar game. They can keep it close in the fourth quarter to have a shot at the upset.
5. Riverboat Ron
This was noted in a playoff preview about the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it applies here: the Panthers are gamblers. Riverboat Ron Rivera is not shy about playing to win the game, taking chances on fourth down, calling trick plays, and taking advantage of any opportunity on the field. If the Panthers lose, they won’t go quietly. Confidence breeds confidence, and Rivera may not be in the elite coaching ranks, but he surely instills more trust than a handful of playoff coaches. Fourth and goal from the one, you just know Rivera wants to go for it; he’s got plenty of options too.
4. The Running Game Now Works
The Panthers incredibly expensive backfield is finally completely healthy, and Jonathan Stewart has come on in the last five weeks. He has been arguably the best back in the league over the final stretch: his 486 yards are the highest in that span. Stewart only gained 809 yards rushing, but averaged 4.6 yards a touch and another 7.2 threw the air. Add a healthy DeAngelo Williams to the backfield to spell Stewart, and throw in the speedy Philly Brown to run reserves and screens, and then mix in the massive Mike Tolbert, and the Panthers have a dynamic backfield they’ve envisioned for so long. Oh, there is someone else who can run as well…
3. Cam Newton is Healthy
After playing with a bum ankle and injured ribs, after getting beat up in every game early in the season, and after enduring a car accident that fractured two bones in his back, Newton appears healthy and confident. His play shows it. Newton ran for only 42 yards in his first four games; he has 197 in his last three. With eight total TDs and just one pick in the last three, he has posted two of his highest passer ratings of the year. The threat is there on every play: Newton can break a long run on a designed play or a scramble, and he can dive it in from the 1 yard line. He can throw it short and deep and he can extend the play. Now, and just think what could happen if, after leading the league with 10 dropped passes, Kelvin Benjamin could hold on to the ball when he’s open.
2. The Defense is Back
The Panthers were dismal to start, and it really did have a good amount to do with the sudden expulsion of defensive end Greg Hardy before Week 3. It took a lot of time for the club to get adjusted to trying to replacing last year’s sack leader. Well, they’ve significantly improved. Charles Johnson has emerged as a force on the line and in the locker room, as the fourth year player finished the season with 8.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. They also have last year’s defensive player of the year, Luke Kuechly, who has better stats across the board (only one pick to four last year, however). A turn towards the youthful has bolstered the secondary as well. Veteran strong safety Roman Harper, who leads the team with four picks, is the only member of the group who started Week 1. He was only recently joined by rookie corner Bene Benwikere, rookie free safety Tre Boston, and third year corner Josh Norman, a trio of speedy assets. Since the changes, they have 14 of the season’s 40 sacks and nine of their 26 turnovers.
1. And Defense Still Win Championships
Until proven otherwise. For all the advantages offenses are enjoying, from protecting quarterbacks to shielding wide receivers to refs throwing more flags, defenses have proven time and time again this year that they are still more important. We’ve seen Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning shut down by aggressive pass rushes (both by the Bills), we’ve seen Seattle clamp down again to smother every offense, and we still see star wide outs disappear on Revis Island. The Jets nearly beat the Patriots (twice) by taking Rob Gronkowski out of the game, and the Bills, Texans, and Browns had playoff hopes because of defense and in spite of their bad quarterbacks. At their best, the Panthers D can stop anyone, and that’s what it takes to win. The 10th ranked defense pressures the quarterback with just four lineman, they force the pass, and aggressively try to create turnovers. Good luck Ryan Lindley, and look out everyone else.
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