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The Carolina Panthers are one of five undefeated teams in the NFL, and it might be time to start taking them seriously.
At 6-0, the Panthers have gone nearly half their season without a loss. Even playing in the NFC South, considered one of the weakest divisions in football, the Panthers are starting to look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Part of the reason is that the team no longer goes as Cam Newton goes.
The Panthers gave Newton a monster $103 million contract this offseason to ensure he’s their quarterback for the future. However, the Panthers have quietly built a solid supporting cast for him that’s helping the team win, even when Cam isn’t having a great game.
Take the Panthers’ Week 7 win over the Philadelphia Eagles for example. Newton went 14-24 for 197 yards, one passing touchdown, one rushing touchdown, and three interceptions with a passer rating of just 59.2. Nonetheless, the Panthers pulled out a win against a quietly improving Eagles team.
The Panthers defense deserves much of the credit. Heading into Week 7, the Panthers ranked fifth in Football Outsider’s defensive DVOA. While their rush defense was only ranked 18th, their pass defense was ranked third, thanks in part to breakout cornerback Josh Norman.
ProFootball Focus’s Sam Monson argued last week that Norman has been the NFL’s best cornerback this season. Going into Week 7, Norman was allowing catches on just 46% of his passes that went his way, while quarterbacks targeting him had just a 24.1 passer rating, the best mark among corners in the league. Norman already has four interceptions this season and has returned two of them for touchdowns.
While the run defense isn’t as strong, they’re also not giving up huge numbers to opposing running backs. According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers’ defensive line is ninth in running back yards per carry, giving up 3.6 yards per carry. Additionally, they’re ninth in open field yards – yards given up after ten yards, proving that even after moderately successful runs, the Panthers aren’t giving up big plays to opposing backs.
The defense was huge in Week 7, especially after Newton’s interceptions. In the second quarter, after Newton was intercepted on the Panthers’ 39-yard line, the defense held the Eagles to a field goal on a short field. The Panthers again were able to hold the Eagles to a field goal on a short field in the third quarter after Newton was intercepted on the Panthers’ 18.
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And while the defense has helped, the Panthers offense is better than many expected, ranked 12th by Football Outsiders. On a night when Newton wasn’t his best, the Panthers got a lift from their running backs, as Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert combined for 141 yards and one touchdown (Stewart did most of the work with 125 yards).
Stewart’s production has been climbing in recent weeks, as he had 170 rushing yards in the first three weeks of the year, but 253 rushing yards over the previous three weeks. According to Football Outsiders, Carolina’s running offense was fourth-best in the NFL going into Week 7.
The pass offense is less impressive, ranked 22nd by Football Outsiders, which also shows the Panthers’ growth as a team. Carolina lost breakout receiver Kelvin Benjamin in training camp to a torn ACL, but Newton has made other players reliable targets. Tight end Greg Olsen is fourth among tight ends in receiving yards this season, while receivers like Ted Ginn Jr. and Corey Brown have 283 and 133 receiving yards, respectively.
Again, the team’s offensive growth, despite an average season from Newton, shows how the Panthers are no longer a one-man show.
While Newton has been mentioned in the early MVP conversation, he’s basically the same as he’s always been – very good, but not MVP-level good. This year, Newton has a lower completion rate, higher interception rate, a lower passer rating, and the exact same yards gained per pass attempt as 2014. While his touchdown rate is up and his yards gained per completion are up, Cam’s season has largely been par for the course.
Still, the Panthers as a whole are getting it done. While people will mention a fairly easy schedule, the Panthers should be applauded for beating teams they should beat early in the season. More impressively, the Panthers then beat the Seahawks in Seattle in Week 6 and then handled the Eagles in Charlotte in Week 7.
The coming weeks will say a lot about the Panthers – they face the Colts in Week 8, the Packers in Week 9, and then see the Saints, Giants, and Falcons twice over the final five weeks.
While the Panthers aren’t quite on the level of teams like the Patriots, Packers, Bengals, or Broncos – the other four undefeated teams – they should be earning the rest of the league’s respect.