Saturday, November 16, 2013

Panthers and their Pride

Cam's arm will be as important as his legs this Monday night vs the juggernaut 

I was exhausted after the 49ers vs Panthers contest. The yelling, the jumping, the sadness, all of it was exhausting; it took it out of me. I’m not built for having a rollercoaster of emotions in such a compact period of time (so naturally being a sports fan will probably kill me, and I’m ok with that).  And you know what I did after I sobered up I calmed down? I checked the schedule to see who the Panthers play next week. That’s it.  The Panthers get one day to enjoy their huge win that put them on the map nationally.
The National exposure only increases this week as the Panthers take on the New England Patriots in the primetime of Monday Night Football; another week, another challenge.  No rest for the weary.  As much as we learned about the Panthers in their win vs 49ers, this Patriot game presents a unique set of questions; can the Panthers handle the success? Can Carolina beat an elite QB? Is it possible that this franchise can be offensively special when they need to be?

The San Francisco game answered a lot of lingering questions.  The contest was a mirror image slugfest.  Two fantastic defenses feasted on uneven offenses.  Despite his overall record as a starter (13-6), Colin Kaepernick has been more vociferously criticized for his inability to put up big numbers and move the 49ers down the field through the air.  After starting out with a 400 yard performance in week 1, the 2nd year starter has struggled of late even while the team is (5-1) in its last six games.

During this win streak, the Panthers haven't faced a QB as prolific as Brady

The Panthers fought through its own miscues to beat the defending NFC Champion several drops, two turnovers, and a questionable call (on the play Vernon Davis suffered a concussion, I was of the mind that he fumbled) and found a way to win.  The same tight games that once eluded the team, have been going the Panthers’ way of late.  The defense was huge all game (even sealing the win with an interception) and propped up the team for the second straight week, covering for a pedestrian performance from star Cam Newton.  Newton, to his credit, wasn't nearly as bad as his numbers indicated (16 for 32 with 169 yards and an interception).  His receivers let him down on several third downs that killed drives, but the ten points amassed was enough to get the team to (6-3).

10 points won’t be enough against Tom Brady and Co. The team will have to show exactly how dynamic it can be.  Thankfully, the Panthers will have a full complement of its running backs (Mike Tolbert, DeAngelo Williams, and Jonathan Stewart) that amassed 94 yards against the 49ers.  Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly (the nose tackles for the team) have been placed on IR, and linebacker Jerod Mayo is also done for the season, making New England more susceptible to the run.  The run will be important to wear the defense down, keep Tom Brady on the sidelines, and to set-up the play-action.  The Panthers won’t be able to simply run to win, Coach Belichick is known for targeting and taking away the strength of his competitors and Monday night will be no different. True, the run game is Carolina’s most devastating weapon available to the NFC South team, but Killa Cam (who will need to make his own contributions to the run game with his planned runs and play-extending scrambles) has to be able to make throws to prolong drives and get the team down the field to score TDs.

Defensively, Panthers’ fans should be concerned about Rob Gronkowski. During this most recent run, the team hasn’t faced a QB/receiving threat combo of this caliber (remember, Davis was knocked out early with a concussion); and the secondary, while improved, is the weakest part of that side of the ball.  Plus, the matchup will be good practice for the team’s Cajun rivals when they face twice in December.  Free Safety Mike Mitchell said, “We heard all the naysayers say we hadn’t played anybody…well, we played somebody today on the road in their place, and beat them…we’re relevant, we’re here.”

If he wants those words to ring true, they’ll have to win again.  That is not fair, but that’s what it means to be a good team. Consistency isn’t easy, but neither is football.  

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pencils Down

Carolina will need a big and mistake-free game from its QB

There's a big test for the Panthers coming this Sunday. After stumbling out of the blocks early to a 1-3 start, the team has reeled off four straight wins, getting above .500 in Oct/Nov for the first time in several seasons. While the wins were necessary to validate some pundit's predictions, a better gauge of exactly how good they are will be their 4:15 EST contest in San Francisco Sunday. So far, the Panthers have beaten the teams they were "supposed" to beat. Carolina demolished the Giants and Vikings, while physically dominating Tampa Bay and the Rams. Now they go into a harsh environment, on the other side of the football world, to battle a team that has won its last five games and had an extra week to prepare coming off its bye.

The team has legitimately changed what they were as a team. Instead of throwing the ball a high volume, and running solely through the read option, the team has relied on its traditional running game (primarily DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert, though Johnathan Stewart is finally healthy enough to see time on the field) with Cam Newton serving as a secondary option through the air. No conversation about the Panthers can be had without discussing the fantastic defense.

Thomas Davis is finally healthy after undergoing THREE separate ACL injuries. He is paired with the best middle linebacker in football, Luke Kuechly, and help from an attacking an opportunistic linebacking corps. None of their success would be possible if it weren't for the gauntlet of defensive lineman that general manager Dave Gettleman (formerly of the similarly-assembled NY Giants) has put together. Greg Hardy, Star Lotulelei, Charles Johnson all head up the aggressive unit. While the secondary is the relatively weakest part of the defense, as they have gotten healthier, players are beginning to distinguish themselves.

Perhaps the biggest change has been in Coach Rivera and the offensive coordinator Mike Shula.  Rivera's shown a propensity to "go for it" on fourth down after several close losses. The "play for the win" mentality has been extremely successful and perhaps has led to the coach taking the shackles off Shula. It isn't just the 4th down conversions that have led to a more explosive offense, the team is challenging its opponents down field, as well as moving Cam out of the pocket and getting playmakers the ball in space.

When battling through eight games and battling for a playoff spot/division title there is no such thing as a moral victory.

[Sidenote: The Panthers don't play the division-leading Saints until December, and then play them twice in three weeks. It'll be high drama late in the regular season, and I love it]

Going againts the reigning NFC titleholders in their spot is a legitimate litmus test for a young, talented. I believe the Panthers will #KeepPounding. Carolina 21 SF 17.