The Carolina Panthers stand at 4-3 and are in extremely unfamiliar territory.
With their Week 8 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers moved above .500 for the first time since 2008. Perennial preseason conversations since the arrival of quarterback Cam Newton have centered on playoff hopes, but as is typically the case with talk in August, those discussions always turned out to be unrealistic hype.
Seven games into this season, however, Carolina is two games behind the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints and a half-game behind the Detroit Lions for the second wild-card spot in the conference. There are still nine games to play in the regular season—an eternity in the NFL—but with the Panthers winning three straight and four of their last five, it’s impossible not to buy into this new hype.
For the first time in a long while, the playoff hype is real and warranted.
The Carolina defense ranks second in the NFL, giving up just 13.7 points per game. The unit is third overall in total yards allowed (301.4), second in rushing yards allowed (79.3) and 10th in yards allowed through the air (222.1). The Panthers are stout, even dangerous, when their defense is on the field.
It’s the offense, however, that has sparked the playoff conversation.
While the Panthers currently average 24.3 points per game, good for 12th in the NFL, they’ve scored at least 30 points in each of their last three wins and notched a season-high 38 points in their Week 3 win over the New York Giants.
Carolina’s per-game scoring average is being dragged down by two losses where the team failed to reach double digits—a Week 1 loss to the Seattle Seahawks by the score of 12-7 and a Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, 22-6.
Over the last three games, the Panthers rank fourth in the league with a 32 points per game average. Most teams that rank within the top five in both scoring offense and defense do well and tend to make the playoffs.
But it’s going to take more than rankings for the Panthers to enter the postseason party. This team is going to have to navigate through a minefield of a remaining schedule that features three games against current division leaders, a game against last year's Super Bowl runner-up and two contests against a fierce rival in the down-but-still-fighting Atlanta Falcons.
|Carolina Panthers: Remaining 2013 Schedule|
|vs. Atlanta Falcons||2-5|
|at San Francisco 49ers||6-2|
|vs. New England Patriots||6-2|
|at Miami Dolphins||4-4|
|vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers||0-7|
|at New Orleans Saints||6-1|
|vs. New York Jets||3-4|
|vs. New Orleans Saints||6-1|
|at Atlanta Falcons||2-5|
And even though it’s entirely unfair to knock any of the Panthers’ four wins, it is true that none of them have come against a team that is considered a powerhouse.
When the 2013 NFL schedule was announced, Carolina had the toughest road to the playoffs—a slate that featured 16 teams with a combined 2012 record of 138-116-2, per NFL.com.
Reality doesn’t always follow plans on paper, though, as the Panthers haven’t had too tough of a trek thus far.
Carolina’s win over the Giants pushed New York to 0-3, and the hapless G-men now sit at 2-6. Also, the Panthers’ current three-game winning streak has come against the Minnesota Vikings, the St. Louis Rams and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, teams currently combining for a 4-18 record.
None of Carolina’s wins have come against teams that thrive on defense, and none of their four victims rank near the top of the league in points allowed, as they have all been giving up an average of at least 23 points per game.
|Examining Carolina's 4 Wins|
|Team||Record||Points/Game Allowed||NFL Rank|
|New York Giants||2-6||27.9||28th|
|St. Louis Rams||3-5||24.8||21st|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||0-7||23.3||19th|
However, the months of November and December bring utterly different opponents.
After Carolina hosts Atlanta in Week 9, it must travel to San Francisco to face the 49ers, and then they will host the New England Patriots in Week 11. The 49ers and Patriots bring the two best defenses Carolina will have faced to date.
The 49ers rank seventh in the league and give up just 18.1 points per game. The Patriots are a little better and only give up 18 points each time out, which is tied for fifth in the NFL. This three-week stretch will set the tone for Carolina’s potential playoff run. If they win at least two of these games and put points on the scoreboard against stout defenses, the doubters will fade away.
Weeks 14 and 16 bring a similar task but with much greater implications, as Carolina will face the Saints in both of these weeks. The Saints feature an attacking style of defense that Rob Ryan has turned into a weapon. New Orleans gives up just 17.1 points per game (fourth in the NFL) and will be the toughest defense on Carolina’s remaining schedule.
There’s more to these two contests than just the "tough defense" story line, however. The Panthers currently sit two games behind the Saints for the NFC South lead. If both teams stay on the same course, Carolina could steal the division crown from New Orleans by sweeping these two games.
Forget about fighting every NFC non-division winner for a wild-card spot; the Panthers would slide into the playoffs with an automatic bid if they can defeat their division rival.
But the playoffs will come only if the Panthers continue winning football games at the rate they’ve been going over the past five games. To do that, they’ll have to succeed against much stiffer competition.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.