*This piece was written prior to the Thursday Night Football loss against Philadelphia
The Carolina Panthers are 4-1, first in the NFC South and are riding high in many outlets’ power rankings. Cam & co. are coming off back-to-back victories against quality opponents, first the Patriots in Foxborough, then in Detroit against the Lions. With wins like these, the Panthers must be back to their 2015 winning form, right? Pump the brakes if you’re so easily convinced. The Panthers may be playing better, but Super Bowl contenders? Not just yet.
Don’t be fooled
The Carolina offense got off to a slow start this year, but have picked it up as of late. After scoring only 39 points total in their first three games, the Panthers have averaged 30 in their last two outings. Cam Newton threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns in consecutive weeks for the first time in his career. All this can be attributed to better play by Cam and the boys, but could it be the opponent that is making the difference?
Beating New England may carry a lot of weight, but right now the Patriots are barely keeping their head above water at 3-2 and own the worst defense in the NFL, giving up 28.4 points and 447.2 total yards per game. In fact, every quarterback that has faced New England has thrown for at least 300 yards, and that includes rookie Deshaun Watson.
The Panthers’ following game against Detroit also featured a poor defense, at least in the secondary. The Lions are surrendering 255.8 yards through the air (27th in NFL) and that’s against struggling offenses like Arizona and the Giants, and a backup quarterback in Minnesota. Let’s also not neglect Matt Stafford’s awful record against teams with a .500 record or better (5-46 entering 2017).
So do these wins really mark Carolina as a contender? I think it says more about their opponents than it does about the Panthers. I’m not saying the Panthers won’t turnout to be a great team this year, I’m just saying let’s hold off on naming them favorites.
Understanding the NFC South
Boasting in its quarterbacks two MVPs as well as Drew Brees and Jameis Winston, the NFC South should have a legitimate claim to be the best division in football – after all, in the last two seasons the division has sent two different teams to the Super Bowl.
This is by far the most fluid, unpredictable, and inconsistent division. For whatever reason, teams in the NFC South fail to achieve any kind of maintained success, and that includes the Panthers.
Carolina hasn’t played well inside the division as of late at all. The Panthers are 1-6 in their last seven games in the NFC South, and are giving up an average of 31.6 points in those losses. The latest loss came in Week 3 against the Saints, a team that was 0-2 before playing Carolina. The Saints won 34-13, scoring more than 20 points for the first time this year, and that includes a game against New England’s last ranked defense. The Panthers play the Eagles and Bears before back-to-back division games against the Falcons and the Buccaneers. How they come out of that stretch in Week 10 will tell us if the Panthers are really competitors are not.
In 2017, the Panthers look good; the Falcons have also only lost a single game, and both the Saints and Bucs are at 2-2. It certainly feels like this is a strong year in the NFC South – but we’ve seen collapses in this division before. It was only two years ago when Atlanta started 5-0 but failed to make the postseason. As competitive as this division looks, I’d avoid the Super Bowl talk, at least at this point in the season.
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