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.
As for the offense, you would expect it to be a pass-first unit that revolves around recent first overall pick Cam Newton. However, the Panthers take a run-first offensive approach, ranking fourth in the league in rush attempts and 30th in pass attempts. The team still utilizes Newton's arm talent when necessary, but leans on three strong running backs in DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and recently activated Jonathan Stewart. Newton also factors in as a runner, as he is second on the team with 328 rushing yards, though many of those yards do not come from designed run plays.
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.