The 2013 NFL season is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable in many years. After four weeks of the regular season the Carolina Panthers were sitting at 1-3, with just a solitary (albeit convincing) win over the Giants to show for their efforts. Defeats had come courtesy of the Seahawks, Bills and Cardinals and the knives were being sharpened for coach Ron Rivera and star quarterback Cam Newton.
Fast forward to week 12 and a hard fought come from behind win over the Miami Dolphins has seen the Panthers take their winning streak to seven games, propelling them to an 8-3 record and the current projected fifth seed in the NFC playoff picture. With four divisional games, including both matches against the New Orleans Saints, still to come in the last five weeks of the season, Carolina is very much in control of its own destiny. In fact, with the Saints travelling to Seattle on Monday night, the two teams could easily be level pegging at the top of the division when they meet in week 14.
The improvement in Carolina’s form can be attributed in part to the form of their defense, which is third in the NFL in terms of yards allowed per game, third against the run and first in terms of points allowed. A miserly average of 13.7 points per game is comfortably the best in the league and takes the pressure off Cam Newton and the offense to a certain extent. They know they do not need to run up huge scores to be competitive and have a good chance to win football games.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the defense by example and has racked up 93 tackles and 3 picks already this year. It is his unstinting effort that singles him out above other members of an effective and admired defensive unit. Fellow linebacker Thimas Davus has backed him up with 89 tackles and defensive end Charles Johnson provides the pressure, having recorded 8.5 sacks so far this year.
String displays have contributed to some close wins, such as the 10-9 win in San Francisco , 24-20 victory over Tom Brady and the Patriots and the come from behind 20-16 win in Miami. It is a commonly held belief that defense wins Championships; if this is the case then the Panthers are putting themselves in a string position.
Offensively, quarterback Newton and running back DeAngelo Williams provide the main focus, with wide receive Steve Smith (51 catches) and tight end Greg Olsen (45 catches) the main targets for Newton. Carolina’s 1389 rushing yards are primarily attributed to Williams (610) and Newton (379). Newton’s 88.3 passer rating is not among the highest in the league and reflects an inconsistent season as a whole. He followed a three interception riddled game in Arizona (rating 47.8) with a three touchdown display in Minnesota (143.4 rating).
If Newton can improve the consistency of his play then the Panthers become a realistic proposition for the postseason. His three consecutive game winning drives suggest he is moving in the right direction!
Ultimately, their fate will come down to the four divisional games and, in particular, the games against New Orleans. Under Rob Ryan the Saints' defense has improved markedly and taken the pressure off Drew Brees. The Saints are giving up just 17.8 points per game and as such will provide a tough test for the Carolina offense. But if they can execute and the defense can stop the high octane Saints when they have the ball, there is no reason why Carolina cannot win one, or both, of the key matchups. If they can beat New England and San Francisco, surely a win over any team is possible.
What is for certain is that these two games will go a long way towards shaping the NFC playoff picture. Win both and the division (and probable number two seed is yours). Lose them and the battle for that last slot in the postseason becomes a huge battle.
It is a tough ask for Newton and the Panthers but, with consistency on offense and continued stellar play on defense, this team can upset their rivals and pull off a big win (or two) over Drew Brees and the Saints. After that, anything is possible!