The Carolina Panthers are officially for real
You can say that the Patriots should have gotten that pass interference call on the game's final play, but good teams find ways to win games, and the Panthers won that game. I'm not going to go on a rant about that call - the Panthers won, and I'm going to talk about how they have proven to be legitimate contenders.
First of all, the defense is clearly elite. The Panthers rank first in scoring defense, third in total defense, fifth in pass defense, third in run defense, and third in takeaways - there is nothing they can't do. There are four key players who have caused this to happen.
The first is Luke Kuechly, who was great in his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2012, but has gotten even better this season. He is now a Defensive Player of the Year candidate thanks to his ability to quarterback the defense, defend the run, and sit in coverage, all at a high level.
Next we have the two defensive ends, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson. Hardy excels in defending the run and is more than serviceable in pass rushing, while Johnson is more the "pin your ears back and rush the passer" type. They combine to constantly give quarterbacks fits, making life easier on a secondary that entered the season with some question marks. The two ends have combined for 94.5 total pressures (sacks + hits + hurries) on the season, giving them an average of 9.45 combined pressures per game. In 2012, the tandem averaged 8.16 combined pressures per game.
The uptick in pressure off the edge could be contributed in part to my fourth key player, rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who draws attention in the middle that allows Hardy and Johnson more space on the edge. Though he has played less snaps (58.9%) than the other three players I mentioned, you could make the argument that Lotulelei has been the best player on the Panthers' defense when on the field. His biggest contribution is in the running game, where the Panthers have gone from ranking 14th in 2012 to third in 2013. Lotulelei is the biggest difference from last year's front seven.
I would feel remiss not to mention some of the defensive backs who have been playing well for the Panthers. Captain Munnerlyn is having a career year at cornerback, while Drayton Florence has also been strong in coverage. Though he is subpar against the run (which isn't a huge deal with an elite front seven), safety Quintin Mikell continues to be underrated against the pass. Finally, Mike Mitchell has filled in very well since starting safety Charles Godfrey hit injured reserve with a torn Achilles.
This elite unit stymied weak competition all year, but over the past two weeks, they have held the 49ers' 12th ranked scoring offense to nine points, and the Patriots' eighth ranked scoring offense to 20 points. Only three teams have even topped 15 points on these guys, and one of those times was thanks to four turnovers by the offense. They have forced 2+ turnovers in eight of their ten games, and registered one turnover in each of those other two contests. This is clearly a championship caliber defense.