The Carolina Panthers are officially for real
The receiving core is certainly not the strongest, but Newton has an ultra-reliable pass catcher in Steve Smith, as well as a strong tight end in Greg Olsen. Brandon LaFell is also starting to show signs of life in his fourth year, while speedster Ted Ginn is good for an electrifying big play here and there.
Despite a plethora of injuries, the offensive line has held up well in both the run and pass game, grading out positively as a unit in both categories according to Pro Football Focus.
When analyzing this squad, the team that the Panthers reminds me of is the Seattle Seahawks. For both the Seahawks and the Panthers, defense comes first and foremost. It's a stout unit that keeps opponents out of the end zone, but also forces a great deal of turnovers. They are strong from the defensive line all the way back to the secondary, giving opponents very few holes to take advantage of.
On offense, each team has a franchise quarterback (Cam Newton for the Panthers, Russell Wilson for the Seahawks) who can make plays with both his arm or his legs. However, these teams decide to limit what they ask their quarterbacks to do, keeping the electrifying talent in their back pockets for when they need a big play. Each team has one very good wide receiver (Steve Smith for the Panthers, Percy Harvin for the Seahawks) that leads an otherwise serviceable receiving core.
Despite the electrifying ability that each quarterback has, these teams prefer to pound the ball right down your throat. Neither team has the most impressive talent on the offensive line, but what they have are maulers who love to fight in the trenches and battle to create running lanes. The Seahawks employ a run/pass distribution similar to the Panthers, ranking second in rush attempts and 31st in pass attempts.
The biggest differences between these two teams are that the Panthers do not have a running back as talented and ferocious as Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, and that the Panthers' defense leans on their front seven, while the Seahawks' defense leans on the Legion of Boom (their defensive backs).
With two straight wins over high-caliber teams, the Panthers should be on everyone's radar as legitimate contenders in the NFC. Considering the fact that their team is crafted quite similarly to the Seahawks - who are generally considered the favorites to make the Super Bowl out of the NFC - people should recognize the Panthers as a team that could realistically find themselves in the Super Bowl this season.
A huge test for the Panthers will come in December, when they'll take on the division-leading New Orleans Saints twice in three weeks. If the Panthers make it through that stretch unscathed, I think it's time for the rest of the NFC to recognize Carolina as one of the top-two teams in the conference.