The Carolina Panthers are the only unbeaten team in the NFL and have been man-handling their opponents recently, so they rightfully deserve top billing through the first 12 weeks.
The Panthers (11-0) sit atop of Yahoo Sports Power Rankings as well as ESPN’s Power Rankings. While the entire team is playing extremely well, the main reason they are No. 1 in the rankings is due in large part to a top-notch defense.
Sure, Cam Newton and the Panthers offense is piling a bunch of points. Carolina is third in the NFL in scoring with 30.2 points a game and the Panthers have put up 170 points the past five games. And Newton definitely deserves to be the conversation for league MVP, despite being No. 27 in passing yards per game (224), No.20 in QBR ratings (58.5)and No. 19 in total rating (89.5).
Newton has completed 57.2 percent of his passes (190-of-332) for 209.0 yards a game and 20 touchdowns — nine of which have come in the last four contests — but more importantly he has thrown only nine interceptions. He has six multi-touchdown passing games, including five against Washington November 22.
What truly makes Newton a MVP candidate is his running ability. The 26-year old is the top running quarterback in the NFL this year, averaging 38.8 yards per game and tallying seven touchdowns. Newton has one scamper that went 20+ yards and has gained a first down in 38 of his 98 rushing attempts (38.8 percent), which is an excellent percentage.
Newton isn’t the only offensive weapon the Panthers have, as running back Jonathan Stewart and tight end Greg Olsen also qualify. Stewart, the NFL’s third leading rusher, has been a workhorse this year — having seven straight weeks of at least 20 carries. Overall,the eighth-year pro has carried the ball 211 times for 832 yards and four touchdowns. He also has 12 receptions out of the backfield.
When Newton looks to pass, he generally looks in the direction of Olsen. Olsen has been targeted 92 times, which is nearly 1-and-a-half times more than Ted Ginn — who is second on the team with 65 targets. Olsen has 53 receptions for 788 yards along with six touchdowns. 16 of Olsen’s catches has gone for 20+ yards.
But it has been the defense that has been the catalyst for the team all season. Carolina is giving up just 18.6 points a game (third best in the NFL) and has only allowed more than 20 points in a game five times.
The Panthers’ defense ranks in the top-five in several other categories including yards per game (No. 2) with 312.5, No. 5 in passing yards per game (223.8) and tied-No. 2 in rushing yards (88.7). They only have recorded 21 sacks this season, but lead the league with 28 takeaways (18 interceptions and 10 fumbles). In addition, Carolina has scored a NFL high five defensive touchdowns — four on interceptions, one fumble return.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is among the top defensive players in the NFL. The 24-year old has 74 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Weakside Thomas Davis, like Kuechly, is strong against the run as well as pass and can also get to the quarterback. Davis has 74 total tackles, four sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Defensive tackle Kawann Short leads the team with six sacks to go along with 39 tackles while defensive end Kony Ealy has recorded five sacks and three force fumbles. The Panthers defensive backs aren’t bad either as safety Kurt Coleman has 57 tackles, five interceptions and seven pass defensed. Josh Norman, who made a game-saving against New Orleans in Week 3, is one of the best cornerbacks this year. Norman had four interceptions and 15 pass defensed.
If Carolina wasn’t good enough already, the Panthers brought cornerback Cortland Finnegan out of retirement to add depth to the secondary. Finnegan will be part of Carolina’s nickel packages, he has 18 career interceptions in nine seasons.
However, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton probably summed it up the best when he talking to the Times-Picayune about the Panthers.
“They’re doing all of the things that great teams do. If you said, do they rush the ball well? Yes. Is the quarterback playing at a high level? Yes. Are they good in the red zone? Yes.”
“Defensively, they’re taking the ball away. Last week they had two touchdowns defensively,” Payton said. “They have a ton of guys on defense that are playing really well. You’re going to see a lot of these guys playing in the Pro Bowl. They are having that type of season.”
Carolina has won 15 straight regular season games, which dates back to December 7 last year against New Orleans. Next up for the Panthers will be the Saints (4-7), who they have defeated three straight times. After playing in New Orleans, Carolina hosts Atlanta before traveling to New York Giants and Atlanta. The Panthers closes out the season at home against Tampa Bay.
[Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images]