This is the time of year where we've seen just enough NFL games to start making bold predictions about teams.
But this one isn't so bold.
The Carolina Panthers are going to compete for the wild card. And likely win it.
Perhaps you think I'm making too much of their convincing 38-0 shutout of the New York Giants.
Maybe you just believe that I'm still caught up in Cam Newton's magical rookie season, or that I think Steve Smith is five years younger than he actually is. Either way, consider the following before you diagnose me as completely insane:
Storming out of the gate - Carolina had the bye week to look at what they did right in their thrashing of New York. They also had time to figure out what went wrong in the heartbreaking losses to the Bills and Seahawks, both games in which they had every oppurtunity to win.
With that knowledge, let's look at who Carolina plays in their next five games: the Cardinals, the Vikings, the Rams, the Bucs, and the Falcons, all with a combined 5-15 record. That gives Carolina not only an excellent oppurtunity to go 5-2, but also a chance to keep up with New Orleans for the division crown.
Newton's resurgence - Despite Cam's inconsistancies at quarterback, one thing is certain: when he's on, he's on. And with those teams ahead on his schedule, he is bound to string together monster games similar to the one he had against the Giants in Week 3.
He played outstanding when Carolina went on a second half tear last season, finishing among the top quarterbacks by the end of the year. There's absolutely no reason why he shouldn't do it again. Look for the dual-threat star from Auburn to play on fire in these upcoming weeks.
Ted who? - The former Ohio State speedster may have been considered a first round bust, but he is helping Carolina take the top off of defenses. While he only has 7 receptions on the season, he is averaging over 20 yards per catch, which has helped open things up for the offense.
Last week he had 3 receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown, showing big-play ability for the Panthers. As he continues to work on his chemistry with Newton and get more special teams oppurtunities (he is a dangerous return man), I look for Ginn to be an even bigger offensive weapon for the Panthers.
Establishing the run - What many people don't realize is that the Panthers are 3rd in the league in rushing, averaging 151 yards per game. DeAngelo Williams and Newton are doing an exceptional job of setting the tone and opening things up for the passing game. That should continue be a focal point as the season wears on.
No respect - Possibly the most underrated unit in the NFL, Carolina's defense is playing at an extremely high level. Led by their ability to create constant pressure up front, they rank 3rd in the league in points allowed with just 12 per game. It doesn't stop there - they allow the 6th fewest rush yards and the 10th fewest total yards. With those impressive numbers, it's safe to say that Carolina deserves a lot more respect on that side of the ball.
Prediction - Call me crazy, but I think Carolina has what it takes to go 10-6 and take a wild card slot. Their defense remains a constant, while their offense is only going to get better with Newton, Williams and Ginn's abilities. Look for the Panthers to be a contender in January.