Suddenly the Panthers are in playoff position
Posted November 4, 2013
Don't look now, but the Carolina Panthers are in playoff position in the NFC. If the season were to somehow come to an end today -- which, of course, it doesn't, but if it did -- the Panthers, at 5-3, would claim the final wild card spot in the NFC. While they have the same mark as the Detroit Lions through eight games Carolina has a slightly better record within the conference.
Wait, what am I saying? Look now. Take a long, keen look at what is going on right now in Charlotte. Take it all in, because there's a lot to note. Ron Rivera's defense, even without any dynamic players in the secondary, has held opponents to fewer than 300 yards per game while allowing an average of just 13.3 points and they're tied for third in the NFC with 19 takeaways.
So please, take a long hard look at the 2013 Carolina Panthers, and while you're at it, you just might notice that Cam Newton is developing. Not into the next Aaron Rodgers or the next Peyton Manning or the next Ben Roethlisberger. Cam is just developing. And, the Panthers offense is developing with him. Are they to be confused with the 2007 Patriots or the 2013 Broncos? Hardly. But, Rivera is smart enough to understand that he has had two distinct advantages over most of the other teams on their schedule: a dominating front seven on defense, and a steady, productive running game.
The fact remains that the Panthers are still just a mediocre offensive team -- even over this four-game winning streak that has driven the team into playoff contention. But, Carolina is one of the best teams in football on the ground and that front seven is giving up less than 80 rushing yards per game and those numbers translate into a time of possession advantage of nearly 10 minutes per. In fact, the only game in which the Panthers had the ball less than their opponent was in the season-opening loss to Seattle and the deficit was less than 30 seconds.
Carolina's formula has been simple. Utilize the weapons at their disposal. That means a diverse running attack that now can boast the return of Jonathan Stewart along with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. That means featuring the threat -- and using it -- of Newton's legs, which makes every aspect of the Panthers' offense better. Rivera has also embraced fourth down like no other coach in the league of late, converting on five of six tries during the winning streak. Overall, the Panthers are also third in the entire league on third down, converting at a 47% clip as they start the second half of the schedule.
Then, of course, there is the schedule and maybe the biggest reason why we sit here watching a Panthers team that looks very much like a Tiger at the midway point of the season. To date Carolina has played the easiest schedule in the NFL, with a combined record of just 23-44. And, should you opt to toss aside the 8-1 Seahawks the rest of the opposition is playing about .270 football.
The combined record of the Panthers five victims this year is a mere 8-33 (.195) and none of those teams is even going to come close to challenging for a post season berth. But, the beauty of those wins is in just how thoroughly comfortable Carolina appeared in them. Only in the home win over St. Louis did the Panthers not completely dominate and that is significant. Now, with the final two months of the year coming fast -- starting with a trip to defending NFC champion San Francisco -- things change. Five of Carolina's final eight games come against teams that currently hold a playoff position, including two games against division-leading New Orleans.
Three things are going to have to happen if the Panthers are to end a 4-year postseason drought and play meaningful games in January.
1) Beat good football teams when both have something on the line. It's one thing to play the role of spoiler, but another entirely when you have something to lose as well.
2) Learn to win close games. The Panthers entered the fourth quarter with leads in two of their three losses and were within six points in the other only to fail to close the game strong. What it amounts to is a record of 1-9 in games decided by six points or less over the last two years, and if that doesn't change there's just no way Carolina is going to make the playoffs.
3) Let Cam keep running. In the Panther's five wins, Newton has carried the ball an average of more than eight times per game and has registered all four of his rushing touchdowns. Using what makes Newton so incredibly dangerous opens up the rest of the offense in every meaningful way, so don't stop calling "number 1" over the final two months.
I honestly didn't think that the Panthers were headed for a serious playoff push, and I still have a little "show me" lingering in my mind regarding the marshmallow-esque' schedule we've seen through the first two months. But, Carolina carries itself like a playoff contender, and the only thing that remains to uncover is whether they're legitimate contenders or just front-runners. If it's the former, then anything less than 10 wins, even against the remaining schedule, will be a serious disappointment.