Looking at the 8-0 start, the average person would immediately say, "Wow, these guys are playing lights out football." It's an understandable assumption, but it's not the case with this Panthers team. More gritty than pretty, the Panthers off to a historic start that's been highlighted by last minute comebacks and down to the wire defensive stands. Carolina may have a perfect record, but they haven't played perfectly. Coach Ron Rivera recently remarked, "winning masks some of your warts" when addressing Carolina's hard-earned unbeaten streak. The fact that Carolina has been winning "with warts" is also what makes them really dangerous down the stretch.
Call it a cliche' if you want, but the truth is the Panthers still haven't played to their full potential. They've made every game interesting, whether it is coming from behind for a game-winning drive, an overtime drive, or lately struggling to put teams away. There have been flashes in each game on just how good this team can be. Despite losing Kelvin Benjamin on offense for the season and Charles Johnson to I.R. until Thanksgiving because of a hamstring injury, the team has found ways to win.
The Panthers ran the table in the high-profile, difficult four-game stretch against the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts, and Packers. Indianapolis and Philadelphia haven't been as good as predicted, but the Eagles currently lead the NFC East and the struggling Colts dealt the Denver Broncos their first loss of the season last week. Seattle and Green Bay have been strong all season and could be dangerous deep into the playoffs. Both gave the Panthers fits.
Carolina struggled in Seattle for most of the game, as most teams do in that environment, before Cam Newton and the offense exploded in a final-second, come from behind, game-winning touchdown pass to Greg Olsen. It was a perfect pass, that made for a perfect moment for Panther Nation. Against Green Bay, the offense came out firing on all cylinders. While Carolina's offense put up 27 points in the first half, the defense frustrated Aaron Rodgers. Up 30-14 in the fourth, Carolina let the Packers creep back in the game. It took a last moment Thomas Davis goal line interception to prevent overtime and preserve the late victory. You simply can't do this too many times in the NFL. It will catch up with you.
Don't interpret what I am saying as negativity. I am absolutely thrilled with how this team has played through all the adversity with how they have stayed focused and found ways to win. What I am getting at is that the best may still yet to come. If you're not in black and blue, this may not be something you want to hear.
Possibly the closest we have seen this team play to their fullest potential was in that first half against Green Bay. Carolina put up 27 points with big explosive plays while holding Rodgers to just seven, SEVEN points. The truth is Carolina could have made things really ugly had Cam connected with wide-open Greg Olsen and Jericho Clutchery instead of settling for field goals. Even with these missed opportunities, the offense really started clicking last week. Rookie Devin Funchess also got going for the first time this season against the Packers. His growing confidence and offensive integration could make for perfect timing heading into the latter half of the season.
Carolina's offense is ranked fourth scoring, averaging 28.5 points per game. Imagine if Funchess can build off this last performance just how much it will open things up? Fun-Fun could also keep teams from stacking eight-man fronts against the number one ranked rushing attack in the league at 142.2 yards per game. Crazy to think about huh?
It's obvious the defense is missing Charles Johnson off the edge. Gettleman picked up a good, but still aging Jared Allen for veteran help. Kony Ealy is starting to pick up his pace again but Ryan Delaire, who got off to a hot start, has struggled against the run. The biggest problem has been keeping fresh legs throughout late in the game. A tired defensive line has let opposing quarterbacks to sit back and attack the soft zones. Insert blown leads in games against Colts and Packers here. The Panthers secondary has been playing really well, but I don't care who you are, you can't give an NFL quarterbacks enough time to look downfield and wait for a receiver to get open.
I believe we are still going to have some tough and close games ahead, most likely against our division rivals. My personal prediction, being Carolina can stay healthy, is that we could really start to see this team improve (peak) a week or so after Thanksgiving.... AGAIN. At this point, Charles Johnson will have returned from I.R. to join the likes of Jared Allen, Kony Ealy, Mario Addison, and Ryan Delaire. This should provide plenty of depth and help the late game pass rush to really close out and finish games instead of letting teams hang around.
Am I saying we are destined for an undefeated season? Not at all. Is it possible? Sure it is. This team appears to be focused and dialed into one week at a time and that's what it takes in this league. You can't look past anyone in the NFL. As I stated above, we still have holes to fill in our game, but if we can fill those holes we have potential for a strong playoff run. There's a lot of football left though, so let's continue to take it one game at a time and enjoy the ride.
By Tripp Morgan
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