Ah 4-0 to start the season, feels great doesn’t it? Oh…that’s right. While the Panthers are 4-0, and for their fans it does feel great, top of the world great, there is even SOME of the talk of Panthers the national media. Although most of the talk is about Carolina’s soft schedule and on that of beating bad opponents, there’s still noise.
In my estimation, that’s what great teams do—they beat the teams they are supposed to. Now while Carolina hasn’t exactly crushed the competition (well aside from blowing out the Succaneers in Tampa Bay), they have won the games they should. Although week 1’s win came at the expense of Luke Kuechly, who missed the next three games with a concussion, the opening win against the Jaguars got things rolling. Josh Norman began his claim for defensive player of the year with a pick 6 amidst his outstanding play in this opening victory. The Texans next came hoping to loot Bank of America stadium, but Carolina held outlaw JJ Watt in check, which provided just enough offensive opportunity to gut out a second straight victory. The Panthers opened division play in week 3 against the Drew Brees-less Saints. Cam Newton had a “superman” like game against New Orleans, but it was Josh Norman again who saved the day with a stunning endzone interception sealing a third victory. It was another close, gritty win. The team then traveled to rainy, then sunny, then rainy again Tampa Bay to take on “Famous Jameis” Winston. The Panthers feasted on the blue crab, forcing 5 Tampa turnovers, which included another glorious pick 6 by Josh “mama there goes that man again” Norman. Norman had 2 interceptions on the day, totaling four in four games. All was right with the world going into the bye week.
The Panthers are 4-0, but where do they go from here?
All eyes are focused now on the dreaded trip to the great northwest. Call them the Shehawks, Seachickens, Coffeebirds, whatever you want, but you can’t discount that Seattle are 2-time defending NFC champions. Carolina has clashed with the Shehawks four time in the last three seasons, and all have been defensive battles. All, unfortunately, also won by Seattle. Too often the result of blown coverage, bad passes, bad luck or a combination of those and more, Carolina just can’t seem to knock the Seattle monkey off their back. Some believe this could be the year that Carolina finally exorcises those demons, but they have to go straight into a noisy pit of hell to do it. Seattle has been near unbeatable at home over the last four season. Although it can be done, it is never easy. It’s a loud hostile house, defended by a tough team. While Seattle isn’t a push-over by any stretch, this season, they are the most vunerable they have been in years. Russell Wilson is playing behind a porous offensive line (22 sacks allowed through 5 games), Marshawn Lynch is hobbled, and the “Legion of Boom” isn’t quite what it used to be. Now, more than ever, is the time to beat the Seahawks. Not that the Panthers can’t afford to get the next 4 weeks off to a bad start, but a win in Seattle will send the team back to the Carolinas for a 3 game homestand with confidence and a validation of their hot start. Carolina will need the confidence as they host games featuring perennial NFC and AFC powers, two (Eagles & Colts) of which fortunately aren’t firing on all cylinders this season. Most pundits point to this stretch of Carolina’s schedule as the part that will really test the team, and the biggest chance to show the world they are for real. Let’s take a look and see what’s in store for weeks 7-9.
A three game home stand, what could any team ask for this late in the season??!! Carolina’s first guest is Chip Kelly’s Eagles. At 2-3, the Eagles haven’t flown very high so far this season. Something isn’t meshing well in Philly, and Carolina could capitalize on their struggles. Kelly’s unique offense hasn’t clicked this season and there defense hasn’t been able to stop much. It’s a prime opportunity to beat a higher profile team that hasn’t lived up to its hype.
Next on the home menu is Captain Caveman, err Andrew Luck and his aged compatriots, Frank Gore and Andre Johnson. The Colts have sputtered to a 3-2 record, with 2 of those wins coming on the arm of 176-year-old Matt Hasselbeck. Andrew Luck hadn’t played well before he injured his throwing shoulder, and he wasn’t getting much supporting helps either (a narrative usually heard around Carolina’s QB). Preseason Super Bowl contenders for some, the Colts are another team which hasn’t lived up to the hype.
The final game of the home stretch features Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Acme. Even without stellar wideout Jordy Nelson, the Packers are 5-0 and clicking on all cylinders. Perhaps most impressive is their defense, which has played above initial expectations. Like the Seahawks, however, some teams have shown the Packers are human and that Rodgers can make mistakes like any mortal. Green Bay is clearly the toughest test in this four game stretch.
If Carolina can go 2-2 in the coming weeks, they will hush some of the haters and even make some believers in the process. After Green Bay, the schedule relaxes with games in Tennessee, back home for Washington, and then a Thanksgiving dinner date with the Kraken and possibly the Tony Romo-less Cowpokes. Then the division takes center stage with 4 of the last 5 games against NFC South rivals. With both games against the also undefeated Falcons in December, the division winner may just be determined in the final two weeks. The Falcons games are sandwiched between contests in New Orleans and a season ender with Tampa at home. Carolina does get a sample of the New York Giants at the Meadowlands, but few are buying that product given the G-Men’s inconsistent through the first five weeks.
The Panthers schedule is favorable, but the team must continue the tough play, making sure to feature Cam Newton’s strengths in the absence of any other offensive stars. The (hopeful) return of defensive captain Luke Kuechly this week, along with the continuing emergence of Josh Norman, will help set the tone for the defense going forward. A third consecutive division title is a possibility. The road isn’t smooth, but if the team can keep it between the lines, the destination is attainable.
By Jay Holman