It’s always fun to see the maturation of a player with the tools to become a star finally perform on the field in personal accomplishments, but more importantly in team victories. One such example this season is quarterback Cam Newton and the emergence of the Carolina Panthers as a postseason contender. The Panthers currently own the third-best record in the National Football Conference (NFC) and sit only one game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South. Carolina has won six straight games, the previous two over perennial Super Bowl contenders in the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots and looks like a team with a legitimate chance to make a postseason run.

Before delving into why the Panthers have been so successful this season, I will address the controversial victory over the Patriots on Monday Night Football. In the final play of the game, linebacker Luke Kuechly wrapped his arms around Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s last-second heave was intercepted by Panthers safety Robert Lester. The back judge threw a flag for pass interference before conferencing with the other officials. The referees then proceeded to pick up the flag, say there was no foul on the play and run off the field. There was no explanation offered to the Patriots and the game simply ended in a controversial non-call.

First off, the officials should have explained waving off the penalty. Analysts seem split on whether this play warranted a flag, and I’m on the side saying Brady deserved an opportunity to give the Patriots a win with one final play from the one-yard line. Sure, maybe Gronkowski wouldn’t have been able to get back to the ball in time to stop the interception. But the play was too close to call to avoid such a blatantly clear penalty. It’s not as if the ball was 15 feet above Gronkowski’s head or twenty yards short. Gronk was close enough to the play that if he wasn’t held, it is reasonable enough to imagine a player of his magnitude at least tipping the ball in the air and extending the play.

I think it should have been a penalty giving the Patriots one final play to win the game, but that was not the sole determiner in the game. The Panthers played extremely well against a talented New England squad and asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the NFL this season with back-to-back quality wins over probable postseason squads.

Newton has improved his play this season tremendously, and while his passing yardage totals are down from his first two seasons, his accuracy and decision-making skills are way up. Newton ranks ninth in the NFL in quarterback rating at 91.8 and finished Monday’s game 19-28 with 209 yards passing and three touchdowns. Add in an additional 62 yards on the ground and Newton really displayed just how dangerous he can be to opposing defenses.

The former Heisman winner displays the big-play ability, both with his arm and legs, to make Carolina just dangerous enough to scrape by offensively. Carolina’s key offensively is Newton and the Panthers live or die depending on how Cam performs week to week.

Carolina’s offense may not be elite, but the Panthers possess some formidable weapons in deep-threat receiver Steve Smith, a tough pass catching tight end in Greg Olsen and a trio of diversely skilled running backs in DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. It’s certainly not the best or even one of the top ten offenses in the NFL, but with such a dominant defense, the Panthers don’t need their offense to carry them every game. Newton just has to limit mistakes and make enough big plays to ensure the Panthers put points on the board and keep it out of the other team’s hands.

Where the Panthers’ true strength lies is in its defense. Carolina is allowing a mere 13.5 points per game through 10 games this season, a mark that if it holds up over the remainder of the season would rank as the lowest point per game total allowed by a defense in the NFL since the 2006 Baltimore Ravens. Pretty impressive for a Panthers squad that started the season 1-3 including losses in which they allowed over 20 points at the hands of Buffalo and Arizona.

Kuechly and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis are racking up the tackles in the middle of the field, ranking ninth and 13th in the league in tackles, respectively. The duo has combined for a total of 170 tackles. On the defensive line, defensive end Charles Johnson ranks ninth in the NFL with 8.5 sacks this season, while defensive tackles Dwan Edwards and Star Lotulelei have helped the Panthers stuff the run. Carolina ranks third in the league allowing 84.5 rushing yards per game.

The defensive secondary has been solid all season as well, aided by the frequent pressure the front seven puts on quarterbacks. Carolina ranks fifth in the league in passing yards allowed and is second in forced turnovers with 23 this season. The Panthers rank third in the league in turnover differential, a major component to the team’s success this season.

With a roster consisting of many young and developing stars, the Panthers’ brightest days are certainly ahead of them. Already possessing a dominant defense and a still growing and versatile franchise quarterback, Carolina is in position to be a NFC South contender over the next several years. NFL teams should be afraid if the Panthers continue to perform as they have during this six-game winning streak, especially if they can continue defeating elite teams like the 49ers and Patriots.

Carolina’s ceiling this season depends largely on the two remaining games against New Orleans in weeks 14 and 16. If the Panthers can manage to win one of these matchups, or even miraculously pull off a sweep, a NFC South title and possibly even a first-round bye would not be out of the question. Aside from these two games, the Panthers’ remaining schedule is less than daunting with matchups against the inconsistent Dolphins and Jets, and games against the lowly Buccaneers and Falcons. An 11-win campaign, as unlikely as it would have seemed at the beginning of the year, looks like a definite possibility for Carolina this season.

Flaws remain for the Panthers however, specifically in the running game, where they have had only one 100-yard rusher in a game all season. As a young squad, it is still early to tell whether Carolina can maintain its current pace and make the postseason in a competitive NFC. This is after all a team that lost earlier in the season to a mediocre Buffalo team.

Again, if Carolina continues its spectacular defensive play and Newton can avoid costly turnovers and make big drive-extending plays when necessary, Carolina could emerge as the surprise team of the season. If the next six weeks of the season are in any way like the previous six for the Panthers, the NFL better watch out for Carolina come the postseason.


A version of this article appeared on page 10 of November 20, 2013’s print edition of The Daily Nexus.

Art by Irene Kuo of The Daily Nexus.