Seven weeks ago, back on Oct. 6 when the boys in blue lost to the Arizona Cardinals 22-6 and moved to 1-3 on the season, everyone was wondering, "How do we fix these Carolina Panthers?"
Quarterback Cam Newton’s skills were being called into question, and head coach Ron Rivera’s coaching seat was, again, red hot.
That seems like centuries ago.
The Panthers have won six games since and haven’t lost. They’ve scorched a path from close to the bottom of the division and pushed the envelope almost to the top, where they are challengers for the NFC South crown.
Carolina’s offense has scored 30 or more points four times over the last six weeks and averaged 27.3 points per game, beating opponents on average by more than two touchdowns per game. Even more impressive is the fact that Carolina’s defense has held opponents to 15 points or less five times during the winning streak and averaged just 12.8 points per game allowed.
Just about everything has been going well of late for the team. Instead of wondering how to fix this Carolina team, the popular question now is, "How do the Panthers continue on this torrid pace?"
The Schedule Will Help
Outside of two games against the division-leading New Orleans Saints, the Panthers don’t face a team with a winning record for the rest of the season. Carolina’s two games against New Orleans will likely go a long way toward determining the winner of the NFC South, but the Panthers' other opponents are a combined 14-27.
|Carolina Panthers' Remaining Schedule|
|Week 12||at Miami Dolphins||5-5|
|Week 13||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||2-8|
|Week 14||at New Orleans Saints||9-2|
|Week 15||New York Jets||5-5|
|Week 16||New Orleans Saints||9-2|
|Week 17||at Atlanta Falcons||2-9|
Continued Third-down Success
The Panthers are extremely successful at converting third downs into first downs. Their 48.44 percent success rate leads the league, and last week against the New England Patriots, Carolina was 8-of-11 on third down (73 percent).
Sustaining drives is a huge key on offense, and moving the chains as frequently as the Panthers have done is important to sustaining their success.
For those “Riverboat Ron” fans out there, Carolina’s success of fourth down has been excellent as well. The Panthers rank fourth in the NFL, converting 71.43 percent of their fourth-down plays.
The Panthers are thriving in late-down situations.
Share the Workload
Running back Jonathan Stewart’s Week 8 return from injury was a blessing to this Panthers offense. DeAngelo Williams’ and Mike Tolbert’s duo is now, once again, a trio, and this shared committee benefits everyone involved, as well as the team.
|Carolina Panthers: RB Workload Since Week 8|
|Jonathan Stewart||DeAngelo Williams||Mike Tolbert|
|Week 8||9 carries, 4.78 yards/carry||13 carries, 3.23 yards/carry||6 carries, 4 yards/carry|
|Week 9||13 carries, 3.15 yards/carry||8 carries, 5.75 yards/carry||2 carries, 4.5 yards/carry|
|Week 10||4 carries, 2.5 yards/carry||6 carries, 2.33 yards/carry||6 carries, 2.85 yards/carry|
|Pro Football Reference|
Now that Carolina’s offense will typically feature a fresh-legged running back, the Panthers running game can continue to be explosive, even late in games.
The same shared workload theory works in the passing game as well.
During the six-game winning streak, Newton has hit 10 different receiving targets through the air and five different receivers have caught touchdown passes. Sure, wide receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen are still Newton’s favorite targets, but the third-year quarterback now has a plethora of pass-catchers he trusts.
The Panthers are continually growing into this playoff-ready team that now actually looks like it could make a deep run into the playoffs. Growth is good. Newton’s maturation is spiking, and he looks like a guy who can now put this team on his back and make wins happen.
And who could forget about the defense? Certainly not any offensive coordinator in the league.
Surely, this powerful and stingy Carolina defense is one of the biggest reasons the Panthers have a 7-3 record right now. The Panthers rank first in the NFL is points allowed (13.5) and have the third-ranked run defense (84.5 yards per game allowed) and fifth-ranked pass defense (209.5 yards per game allowed).
The run-stopping and pass-rushing abilities of the front four in Carolina make this defense tough to move against. Luke Kuechly anchors a linebacker corps that’s the envy of the NFL, and the secondary makes up for its lack of star power with star-like play.
As long as the Carolina defense holds strong and Newton and the offense continue their current course of growth and consistency, the Panthers will win football games.
While most look at the Saints and the Seattle Seahawks as the power NFC teams, there’s no reason to believe that Carolina isn’t right there with them.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.