|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.