5 Reasons the Carolina Panthers Are Primed for a Midseason Run
To paraphrase a popular hit song, the Carolina Panthers have the eye of the tiger and are ready to start making some loud noises of their own as they head into the second week of their softest four-game stretch of the season.
Following a dominant 35-10 road win over the Minnesota Vikings (1-5), the Panthers are 2-3 for the first time since 2009 and Ron Rivera has a chance to reach .500 for the first time in his head coaching career with a win over the visiting St. Louis Rams (3-3) this weekend.
To put Carolina's early season "success" in perspective, the Panthers have either been winless or maintained a losing record for 53 consecutive games.
The last time Carolina had a .500 record was after beating the New Orleans Saints, 23-10, on January 3, 2010, to finish the 2009-10 season at 8-8.
Matt Moore was the starting quarterback that day, John Fox was the coach, Cam Newton was enjoying the perks of college recruiting and Jimmy Clausen was an All-American football player at Notre Dame.
With a +41 point scoring differential—sixth-best in the NFL—in their first five games coming on the backs of three close losses and a pair of blowout victories, the Panthers could easily have three or four wins under their belts already this season.
Instead, the team with a 7-4 record in their last 11 games sits a game below .500 heading into Week 7.
So what makes me so sure the Panthers are in the midst of a four-game winning streak?
Panthers' Soft Schedule
The Panthers are in the midst of the softest four-game stretch of their season and Ron Rivera's team could be above .500 for the first time since he arrived in Charlotte within a week.
Heading into Carolina's home game against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, the Panthers' next three opponents are a combined 4-12 with St. Louis the owner all but one of those victories.
While the Rams are Carolina's toughest opponent on paper, their divisional rivals may offer the best opportunity for a backslide.
Glennon took over the Minnesota Vikings' new starting QB, Josh Freeman, after a difficult 0-3 start and poor play from the Bucs' former franchise signal caller.
The Panthers will look to improve to 2-0 in the division and cross into team-with-a-winning-record territory in Week 9 when they host the one-win Atlanta Falcons (1-4).
Atlanta has lost several of its top players, including All-Pro wideout Julio Jones (foot) and former Pro Bowl running back Stephen Jackson (ankle), and according to their other injured receiver, Roddy White (hamstring), their identity.
A close win by seven points or less against any of their next three opponents could do wonders for the team's confidence heading into the second half of the season.
Cam Newton's Consistency
Cam Newton is the single most important player on the Carolina Panthers' roster.
As Cam goes, so goes the team.
Carolina's QB had his best game of the season (20-of-26, 243 yards, 143.4 passer rating) against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 6, passing for three touchdowns and rushing for another without turning over the ball.
Newton had a similarly successful stretch in the second half of the 2012 season when he passed for 14 touchdowns, rushed for four more and only turned the ball over three times on a pair of interceptions and a fumble.
The Panthers won five of their last seven games last season, including four in a row to close out the season and save Ron Rivera's job for at least another year.
So why should you believe Newton is headed for another successful stretch?
One word: Maturity.
After Newton's rushing touchdown against Minnesota last week, he did not perform his typical "SuperCam" celebration.
Instead, he simply handed the ball back to the official and was more concerned with a flag on the ground that happened to be thrown against the defense than he was in putting himself in the spotlight.
By not revealing the hidden "S" beneath his jersey, he revealed his commitment to his team and his desire to simply play hard and win.
And that's a winning formula for the Panthers.
Carolina's focus on defense in the past two NFL drafts—specifically drafting Luke Kuechly (LB), Star Lotulelei (DT) and Kawaan Short (DT)—has helped Sean McDermott's unit ascend to the top of the league.
Heading into Week 7, the Panthers are No. 3 in total defense and second in the NFL in points allowed, giving up just 13.6 points per game.
Cam Newton (or Steve Smith) may be the face of the Panthers' franchise, but Kuechly is the team's best player.
In fact, two of the Panthers' linebackers, Kuechly and Thomas Davis—the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week—are playing at a Pro Bowl level and the defensive line is quietly having a stellar season.
As long as the Panthers can score more than two touchdowns and a field goal per game, they have a chance to beat any team in the NFL.
Smashmouth Offensive Football
Now that Rob Chudzinski has moved on to "browner" pastures as Cleveland's head coach, the Panthers offense can get back to do what it does best: pound the football.
I have said it in each of the past two seasons and I will say it again this year:
The Carolina Panthers are a better team when they run the ball more than they pass.
According to the box scores available on NFL.com, Carolina has called 32 more running plays than throws in its two victories. Conversely, the Panthers passed 22 more times than they ran the ball in their three losses to date.
Granted, let's not put the cart before the horse. It is easier to run in the NFL when your team possesses the lead and your offensive line has asserted its control over the scrimmage area.
However, the Panthers, unlike most high-scoring NFL teams, have established over the past three seasons that they are at their best when they dominate on the ground as they did against the the Giants and Vikings in their first two wins of the season.
Whenever the Panthers limit Newton's throws to around 25 per game and run the ball 35 times or more, they are extremely difficult to beat.
As the late, great Sam Mills would tell Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams and Cam Newton, "Keep Pounding."
Ron Rivera finally gets what it takes to be a successful head coach in the NFL.
You have to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em.
In other words, you have to gamble sometimes in order to win and Rivera has finally learned to take strategic chances to put his team in position to win.
Mike Tolbert's game-opening touchdown against the New York Giants came on a fourth-down run and the Panthers converted twice on fourth-down in their first-quarter, 15-play, touchdown scoring drive against the Vikings in Week 6.
Both calls set the tone for the remainder of the game and showed Carolina that "Riverboat Ron" had confidence in his team.
Though he is under tremendous pressure to win now, Rivera has the Panthers' locker room support and the team wants to win for their third-year head coach.
The difference is that now he is making the aggressive calls that put the Panthers in position to win.
Follow me on Twitter @jimmygrappone and @cltsportshub.
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