All of a sudden the Carolina Panthers are in the NFC playoff race.

After a grim 1-3 start to the season they found their feet and put together a three game winning streak to bring them to a much more respectable 4-3, in fact in their last five games the Panthers are 4-1.

Who would have thought that at this point of the season from the NFC South the Panthers would have a better shot at playoff football than the Atlanta Falcons?

Not me that's for sure.

There are two big reasons for the Panthers' success combined with a few smaller reasons, the main reasons are the improved play of the defense and Cam Newton stepping his play up a level at quarterback. Lets look at the defense first of all.

In the rankings for total yards allowed per game the Panthers are third best in the league, behind only the Houston Texans and the Seattle Seahawks. They are second overall against the run and ninth against the pass. The word I would use to describe this unit is "underrated".

There is always talk of how good the 49ers, Seahawks and Chiefs defenses are, but Carolina should be in that discussion too. Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has been a solid addtion to a great front seven that includes Luke Kuechly, who has been performing at an even higher level than in his impressive rookie season, with 56 total tackles so far and two interceptions.  

To back up this improved defense, the Panthers' offense has also stepped up, even if the stats might not show it. Cam Newton is shaping into one of the best quarterbacks in the league, when he first entered the league we all knew how athletic he was, but now he has shown that he has the ability to lead an offense to wins.

As teammate Steve Smith put it, "Newton has gone from playing checkers to playing chess." His current passing percentage is at 64.9 for the season, the highest in his NFL career. Newton is also doing a better job at not giving away the ball, with only two fumbles this year and only five interceptions thrown.

Newton is making better decisions and the receiving trio of Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn and tight end Greg Olsen have been making the plays once the ball is in thier hands.

The Panthers have a tough strech of games coming up, facing division rivals the Atlanta Falcons this week and then a trip to the San Francisco 49ers and then a home game against the New England Patriots, this will be the true test to see if the Panthers are worthy of playoff football in January.