By beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-6 on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers not only rewrote the franchise record book but ensured the city of Charlotte would enjoy its first winning football season since 2008 when the team went 12-4.
Carolina hasn’t lost since Oct. 6 in Arizona, reeling off eight victories in a row.
Just as important as Carolina’s eight consecutive wins is its 9-3 record. The Panthers are a half game behind the New Orleans Saints in the loss column with a Monday Night Football matchup between the Saints and the Seattle Seahawks in just over 24 hours.
The Seahawks are holding tight onto the NFC’s best record at 10-1. Carolina’s eyes will be focused on Monday’s game not only for its NFC South implications, but also because of its bearing on the upper echelon of the conference.
|Current NFC Playoff Standings|
|New Orleans Saints||9-2|
|San Francisco 49ers||7-4|
If the Seahawks beat the Saints, it will force a tie atop the NFC South between the Saints and Panthers, opening a door for Carolina to control its own destiny to a possible NFC South title and the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed.
If the Saints beat the Seahawks, both teams will be 10-2 with the Panthers one game behind. All three teams would have a shot at the NFC’s top seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and Carolina could still control its own destiny all the way to an NFC South title.
That mentality was apparent in the locker room following Sunday's win. The Charlotte Observer's Joe Person spoke with quarterback Cam Newton, who appreciated the win over Tampa Bay but said there was work to do against the Saints.
The one constant thing in all this playoff talk is the way the Panthers have vaulted from 1-3 also-rans back on Oct. 6 to a team that not only has playoff aspirations, but Super Bowl ideas as well.
Over the course of the last eight weeks the Panthers have found out a ton about their mettle and their makeup. They won a defensive battle in San Francisco where they had to come from behind to beat the 49ers, 10-9. They also won in back-to-back weeks (Week 11 against New England and Week 12 in Miami) on touchdown passes in the final minute of the game.
Carolina has also pummeled teams into submission, just like Sunday against the Buccaneers. The Panthers bested the Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay twice and the Atlanta Falcons all by 15 points or more. Carolina outscored those opponents 157-54 with an average margin of victory of 20.6 points. None of these five opponents have winning records, but Carolina’s convincing wins show that this team can get the job done when it’s supposed to.
Carolina has shown with its eight-game winning streak that it can succeed in close games, come from behind late and triumph with both the running game and passing game—not to mention with a punishing defense. The Panthers eliminate threats they are supposed to and scratch and claw against perceived tougher targets.
Now Carolina is one of those perceived tough targets, possibly the toughest around. With two games remaining between the Panthers and Saints, and New Orleans and Seattle still to play out, the elite NFC spot is still up for grabs.
There’s no reason to believe Carolina can’t climb all the way to the top.
There’s also no reason for the Panthers to be satisfied with merely making it into the playoffs anymore. Carolina has risen from the bowels of the NFC and slowly gained respect. It has inched its way to possible playoff contenders, and with an 8-0 record over their last eight games, these Panthers can honestly believe they can beat anyone.
Any team with that kind of confidence is a Super Bowl contender.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.