The Carolina Panthers are (12-0). What did the third set of four games tell us about the Panthers?
The Carolina Panthers have completed three quarters of their season. They have done so with a perfect record (12-0) over the entire stretch. Each segment of the ride has been a little bit different. Each segment has taken on its own theme.
The first four games had the theme of cautious optimism. It was good to see the Panthers unbeaten but Cam was getting out thrown by the likes of Blake Bortles and Ryan Mallett. The Panthers beat young or second tier quarterbacks in each game, but they did win those games.
Looking back on it, those wins are not as bad as they first appeared. Jacksonville had something of a rebirth this season. Houston is still in the playoff chase despite having played three quarterbacks. New Orleans would play the Panthers tough regardless of record, because that is how the NFC South goes. Finally Tampa Bay is suddenly in the beginnings of its own playoff run.
That set the stage for the second quarter. These were the ‘prove it’ games against former division champions. The Panthers came back to beat Seattle. The controlled and held off Philadelphia. They outlasted Andrew Luck and the Colts in overtime. They held the goal line to stop Aaron Rodgers from making more heroics. These were the teams that the Panthers were not necessarily supposed to beat before the season.
These wins have mostly held up. The Seattle win looks better recently as the Seahawks have surged. The Packers continue to duel with Minnesota for the NFC North. The Colts still hold the advantage in the AFC South. The Eagles are part of a dysfunctional division that no one wants to win.
That brings us to the third quarter. Tennessee, Washington, Dallas, and New Orleans again. These were the games an undefeated wins. These teams were not much different than the first four games the Panthers played. The difference is that if the Panthers had dropped one of the first four games, no one would be too surprised. A real contender does not lose similar games in November.
Nor did the Panthers. After a little challenge in the first half, the handled the Titans. They blew out the Redskins and the Cowboys. This was despite Dallas being favored in the game and the return of Tony Romo. Finally the Panthers staved off the Saints on the road by having their offense bring them back from a slow start.
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These last four games were about adjustments. They were about getting Charles Johnson back but losing Charles Tillman. Andrew Norwell came back to the offensive line. Teams refused to throw at Josh Norman for the most part. The Panthers added Cortland Finnegan to the mix.
These four games were about progressions. Greg Olsen still gets his, but now so does Devin Funchess. We see Ted Ginn get open enough to complain about his dropped balls. Cam Newton has become a more complete quarterback, but still can’t statistically convince doubters that he is an MVP candidate.
These four games were about growth. Bene Benwikere playing well with a target on his back. Kony Ealy making himself felt against Rodgers and Kirk Cousins. Kawann Short tied for the team lead in sacks. Luke Kuechly with a two interception game. Kurt Coleman playing center field.
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Mostly though, these four games were about team. They were about a group of players who have bought in and come together. They know what to expect from each other and they believe they can win any game.
Which brings us to the final quarter. This will be the proving grounds. The Panthers are three time NFC South Champions as of last week, and now the playoffs begin. The Panthers can clinch home field and potentially go undefeated, but they have to take the best shots of four teams who desperate in the playoff chase.
Atlanta (twice), New York, and Tampa Bay. If the Panthers can thrive in these games of playoff-like nature, then they will no doubt be ready when the real playoffs come rolling around.
The Panthers play Atlanta at home on Sunday.