By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts Pink-Hat Panther Fan

The Carolina Panthers were No. 1 on our Cold, Hard Football Facts Quality Stats Power Rankings heading into Week 10, about the only power rankings where Carolina was prominently featured.

Sunday, the Panthers justified our numbers. It’s one thing to have a bunch of indicators suggesting that you are a good team, another to go into San Francisco and beat the 49ers with a seventh-straight shutdown effort on defense.

This one was  the biggest statement win for Carolina since December of 2008, when the Panthers hosted Tampa Bay in Week 13 for first place in the NFC South. The Panthers won 38-23 and rushed for 299 yards; Jon Gruden was fired a month later.

This one wasn’t as important to the standings, but probably twice as inspirational considering how long it’s been since the Panthers have had something real to celebrate. Carolina (6-3) moved a half-game out of first place in the NFC South and a game clear of a wild-card pack that’s more miss than hit.

Does the 10-9 win mean the Panthers are legit?

Yes, and no. They’re legit, in that they’ve played some great defense and are worthy of respect.

But it’s worth noting that they have only played two Quality Opponents all year long (Seattle and San Francisco) and averaged 8.5 points in those games. Unless this Panther defense is up to that of greats like 2002 Baltimore and 2000 Tampa, this offense isn’t close to being good enough to make a serious run this year.

Ah, but why wallow in reality on a day that feels like a Carolina Jubilee?

The Panthers might not have quite arrived all the way, but they’re well-poised for the near future -- and right now they’re as close as they’ve been to elite in a long time.

By the end of the Panthers second year in the NFL, there was every reason to believe this was going to be a perennial franchise. Led by 24-year-old Kerry Collins, the Panthers won seven in a row to close the season, made the playoffs at 12-4 and beat the Aikman-Irvin-Emmitt Cowboys in the playoff opener, 26-17.

They lost to Green Bay in the NFC title game, but that was to be expected -- just the first step in a long journey, right?


It would be another 6 seasons before they were anywhere near the top of the league, and even that 2003 Super Bowl team was more fluke than memorable. They were back in the NFC title game in 2005, losing to Philly.

The Panthers have never had a team dominate to a big record and double-digit average scoring margin, have never had an elite quarterback (Cam Newton’s future notwithstanding), have never had a head coach with personality.

They had Steve Smith, and some flashes of brilliance, and a whole lot of mediocre.

What they have in 2013 is not mediocre.

They’ve had more first downs than the opponent eight weeks running, including a 15-10 edge over San Francisco. And it’s one of those “do your job” groups that Bill Belichick always seems to put together. Luke Kuechly gets the most press on defense, but OLB Thomas Davis is probably just as good. Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are the perfect rushers around rookie DT Star Lotulelei. The secondary is quietly spectacular. Almost everyone is home grown.

On offense, the 2013 team has been the equivalent of a commune: seven guys are on track to produce more than 500 yards from scrimmage, all seven have scored touchdowns. The line is healthy, and always good.

Cam Newton has been playing the perfect football for this team -- moving chains, and avoiding mistakes (nine turnovers in nine games). He’s capable of doing more, but whether he’s capable of doing more without making game-changing mistakes remains to be seen.

It’s a nice football team, with great upside for the future, but it's hard to see them beating two or three of those well-balanced teams in the NFC mix. Can it hang with passing teams like Dallas, New Orleans or Detroit in the playoffs? And is it really likely to beat teams like Seattle or San Francisco on the road in rematches?  

Probably not.

Then again, that’s what we said about the 2012 Ravens, 2011 Giants and 2007 Giants, right? Wave those powder blues, Panther Nation. This just might be your masterpiece.