If defense wins championships, the Carolina Panthers are Super Bowl contenders this season.
Let that resonate.
Five weeks removed from a disappointing loss at Arizona placed a bullseye on Ron Rivera and caused dissension in the locker room, the Panthers are one of the NFL’s hottest teams after picking up their fifth consecutive victory Sunday in San Francisco.
With Rivera’s head off the chopping block and questions of Cam Newton’s legitimacy as a franchise quarterback no longer mentioned, Carolina’s started to look like a franchise that set the bar high with preseason expectations of reaching the playoffs. Newton’s playing the most consistent football of his career and hasn’t needed Superman-like gaudy numbers to stave off the opposition.
That’s where his elite defense comes in.
Carolina put together a dominating effort in the Bay Area with a front seven that controlled the line of scrimmage and pushed the 49ers around with six sacks. Dynamic quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s playmaking ability was neutralized by a swarming unit that gave up only 10 first downs and dominated in the second half.
The loss snapped the 49ers’ five-game winning streak and derailed an offense that had averaged 34.8 points per game over that span.
Luke Kuechly, Carolina’s most valuable player through nine games, put on his hard hat with his usual double-digit tackle performance and led the Panthers’ tenacious attack. The franchise’s first-round draft pick in 2012 who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year last season has showcased coverage and run stoppage expertise as a sophomore pro indicative of his three-time All-American career at Boston College.
Equipped with four expert pass rushers in front of him, veteran linebackers on each side and a no-name secondary that’s gelled as a group, Carolina’s transformed into the NFC’s best defense during this five-game stretch. The Panthers haven’t given up more than 15 points in any of those wins and are plus-7 in turnover margin.
The win over San Francisco was the necessary stamp of the approval — Carolina’s first over a team with a winning record — to catapult the Panthers in the contenders category. Newton called it a game his team “needed”, a down-to-the-wire finish against one of the conference’s most complete teams. It pushed the Panthers to 6-3, a game back of the Saints in the division, and continued Carolina’s ascension toward the postseason.
Remaining home game tickets on StubHub were cheap after the Arizona loss when most assumed the team would tank, but after five straight victories, next week’s Monday night affair with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots is likely the most anticipated game at Bank of America Stadium in years — an opportunity at a “we’ve arrived” moment on national television for the franchise.
It’s not far-fetched to think Rivera’s a coach of the year candidate after being the butt of all jokes early in the season. If the Panthers continue their defense-first mindset, two games down the stretch against Drew Brees and offensive juggernaut New Orleans should be exciting.
Reach staff writer Brad Crawford at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.