There’s no denying it. When you look at the standings in the NFC South, the Carolina Panthers sit alone at the top. They aren’t tied with any other team or percentage points ahead. They are undefeated and 2-and-a-half games in front of the suddenly struggling Falcons. It’s time to admit the Panthers are for real. They are no longer the little brother of the National Football Conference.
It’s easy to forget that the Panthers have clinched the NFC South two years in a row. In 2013, the Panthers had a rough start. They came out of the gates at 1-3 and looked like there was no hope. But coach Ron Rivera righted the ship and the Panthers became a juggernaut. They ended the season 11-1 and had an eight-game winning streak in the middle of it all.
That year, the Panthers also defeated the San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots in the midst of that winning streak. Both teams were just a game away from going to the Super Bowl. The Panthers made it all the way to the Divisional Playoffs, before bowing out. This was all accomplished after a disappointing and mediocre 7-9 season.
Last year, the Panthers went 7-8-1 and still won the NFC South. After battling to a tie with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Panthers went on a six-game losing streak. If they win five of those games–with the emphasis being on Seattle and Green bay–the Panthers are looking at possible home field advantage.
There’s unfinished business that needs to be addressed.
The Panthers have come close to the prize the past two years. This is not the naïve team of players that analysts predict will fold. This is a balanced team of hungry players that have been assembled to win a championship. Quarterback Cam Newton is playing at an MVP level. He reinforced his abilities with a four touchdown–three passing, one rushing–performance against the Packers on Sunday.
The Panthers are not flawless. But they find a way to win. They blew a 17 point lead over Green Bay and were on the verge of losing, until a heroic interception thwarted the threat. They needed overtime to put away a struggling Colts team. But they won. Championship caliber teams will always find a way.
The issue isn’t about the Panthers being able to run the table. It’s time for the Carolina Panthers to take the next logical step and get to the playoffs. Then the Divisional round and Conference play will set them up to finish what they started.
Taking it one game at a time will get the Panthers to the place they want to be. The win over Green Bay was a statement victory that still hasn’t quieted the critics.
“We know who we are as a team,” strong safety Roman Harper said confidently, via ESPN. “We don’t worry about what everybody else has to say and what they rank us, because in this locker room we think we are the best team … whenever we line up.”
The Panthers have won eight straight games. They ended last season winning four in a row, to make that 12 consecutive regular season wins. Considering that this time last year they were trapped in a non-winning streak that would reach six straight, the Panthers have come a long way.
Carolina’s record over the last six games of the season since 2011 is 18-6. The Panthers have consistently gotten better at the end of the season under coach Ron Rivera. Newton is a big reason. Only Tom Brady has more December wins than Newton’s 14, since Newton came into the league in 2011.
The Panthers know who they are. They’re for real. Now, it’s time to prove it to the rest of the critics.
[Feature Photo by Streeter Lecka / Getty Images]