Can The Panthers Keep Winning Streak Rolling?
By Blake Baxter
During the preseason this year, there were some whispers that the Carolina Panthers could be a sleeper in the NFC South. Once the regular season actually commenced, however, they got off to a rather rocky start, losing three of their first four. There were calls for coach Ron Rivera’s head, QB Cam Newton’s game was getting routinely picked apart and the Panthers playoff hopes appeared nearly dead on arrival. But as we approach Week 8, Carolina is finally starting to make the right kind of noise.
It seems as though things have turned around for the Panthers. The team has managed to scrap its way back to .500, and Rivera has become the subject of praise in think pieces around the web. A win in Thursday night’s matchup over the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be their third in a row and fourth in their past five games. It would undoubtedly put them in contention for the NFC wild card spot, but one question remains: Can Carolina keep this up?
Let’s take a look at their upcoming opponents. Following the Panthers’ winnable game against the Bucs, they face the struggling Atlanta Falcons. Last season, the Falcons were one of the best teams in the league. They finished 13-3, clinched homefield advantage and advanced to the NFC Championship before bowing out to the San Francisco 49ers. Basically, just about everything went their way. In fact, they did not even suffer a loss until Week 10. It has been a different story entirely in 2013 though. Thus far, the Falcons have amassed just two wins, but that is not because they have been getting blown out – Atlanta has lost the four games by just 19 points combined. If they pick up a win over the Arizona Cardinals this weekend, they will be on the verge of reaching .500 when they play Carolina in Week 9. Regardless of their record, the Falcons will be a dangerous opponent for the Panthers.
After that, it does not get any easier. They will face the talented San Francisco 49ers in Week 10, the perpetually competitive New England Patriots in Week 11 and the hot-and-cold Miami Dolphins in Week 12 to round out the month of November. They will likely need to take three of their next four to stay in the playoff hunt. If the Panthers split the next four, there is an outside chance they could stay in contention, but nothing more.
This next stretch of games is crucial – that much has been established – so what do they need to do to stay in striking distance? Well, in short, keep doing what they have been doing. It does not require much analysis to realize that the Panthers are at their best when they put a bunch of points on the board (though it does make Rivera’s conservative early season decisions appear even more head scratching). In the Panthers’ three wins this season, they have averaged 34.3 points, whereas in their losses they have averaged just 12. Newton has been criticized intermittently throughout this season for making untimely mistakes and lacking poise, but in truth, he deserves much more credit. Among his accomplishments this season are ranking 10th in passer rating at 95.0, ranking second in passer rating on third down (behind Peyton Manning) at 114.3 and just last week, he impressively completed 88.2 percent of his passes against the St. Louis Rams.
However, the real stars of the Panthers have been on the other side of the ball, particularly their ferocious front seven. They are third in total defense, fourth against the run and fifth against the pass. Better yet, even their shaky secondary has played well the past two weekends. They were a group that was not particularly well regarded before the season began, and were all but written off after a series of injuries in the early going left them depleted and inexperienced. However, surprisingly, the ragtag bunch led by team captain Captain Munnerlyn – who had a 45-yard interception return for a touchdown last Sunday – has played much better than in the first few weeks of the season.
These are the kinds of things that need to keep happening in order for the Panthers to continue their streak. The next four weeks will be telling. Can the secondary keep this up? Can Newton? It is all a matter of consistency and endurance. We shall see over the course of the next month.