15-1. 15 wins and one loss. If you polled Panthers fans before the season started, after Kelvin Benjamin had already torn his ACL, how many of them would have predicted a 15-win season? Five percent might be a high estimate.
Looking at the schedule before the season started, you looked at those first four games against Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans and Tampa Bay and said, “Alright, we can win at least three of those if not all four going into the bye week.” After the bye week though, you were going on the road to Seattle — the reigning two time NFC Champions — and then three straight home games against the Eagles, Colts and Packers, all of whom were playoff teams last year, and all were expected to make the playoffs again this year. Looking at that stretch was more along the lines of, “Alright, if we split those four games and go 2-2, we’re still in good shape for the playoffs.”
Fast forward five months until three days after Santa made his annual appearance and the Panthers finally lost to the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. The Panthers then finished the season at home with a beat down of Tampa Bay and cemented a 15-1 record with the number one seed in the NFC for the playoffs. When Cam Newton was asked to look back at the season after the Tampa game and pick one thing that he’d remember, he replied, “We shouldn’t have lost.”
The Panthers won 18 straight regular season games going back to the 2014 season when they ran the table in December to win the NFC South. Cam Newton accounted for 45 touchdowns this season with 35 in the passing game and 10 rushing while leading the number one scoring offense in the NFL. Yes, the same team that trotted out Ted Ginn Jr., Devin Funchess, Corey “Philly” Brown and Jerricho Cotchery at wide receiver led the NFL in scoring. That is not a slight to any of those receivers but let’s be honest that no one was expecting this to be very strong unit without the aforementioned Benjamin this year. It just goes to show how good not only Cam Newton was this year but how good the offensive coaches were at developing schemes and strategies to benefit each receivers skill set and then obviously the receivers as well for making the plays when they were needed.
The Panthers led the NFL in turnover differential with 20 more takeaways than giveaways this year, which was six more than any other team in the NFL. They have in all likelihood, the MVP this year in Cam Newton. They have an emerging – if not, already emerged — shutdown corner in Josh Norman as well as a now dominant defensive tackle in Kawann Short who finished this season with 11 sacks tying for the lead with Geno Atkins (Cincinnati Bengals) and Aaron Donald (St. Louis or should I say, Los Angeles Rams) for the most sacks by a defensive tackle this season. Less we forget that they still have Luke Kuechly, who was graded as the best pass coverage player in the league this year by Pro Football Focus, the ever present leader of the defense and team in Thomas Davis, and another emerging wide receiver in Devin Funchess who has only gotten better as this year has gone. He and Benjamin should be fun to watch in the coming years.
Speaking of Kuechly…just to put in perspective how good Luke Kuechly was this year, the league average of quarterback passer rating against linebackers was 102.5 this year according to PFF. Passer ratings against Kuechly plummeted to 57.8 in his coverage area. Normally when offenses get their wide receivers matched up with a linebacker, it’s an advantage for the offense. Against Kuechly, it’s the complete opposite as it actually turns into an advantage for the defense (cc: Romo, Tony). And Kuechly wasn’t just the number one graded linebacker in coverage this year…he was graded as the number one defensive player in coverage this year. The man is not human, ladies and gentlemen.
So how do you put a season like this in perspective? How do you put into context a season that was a couple plays away from being defined as perfect? First and foremost, the season is not over yet. The regular season dominance is awesome but at the end of the day, it goes for nothing unless you are raising the Lombardi trophy on February 7th in Santa Clara. Every player and coach in that locker room, I have to assume, would echo the same sentiment. And it all starts this coming Sunday at home against Seattle.
Now this is a familiar place for Carolina. Just two years ago when the Panthers went 12-4 while winning eight straight games at one point, they had a first round bye and then met a different NFC West contender, the San Francisco 49ers, and lost at home 23-10. I still contend that there was some questionable officiating. Shocking right? Questionable officiating? In the NFL? It can’t be! Anyways, this year, yet again we’re coming off a first round bye to play an NFC West opponent at home with hopes of making just the fourth Conference Championship game in team history. Heard this before? Don’t worry, the ending is looking like it’s going to finish differently this time.
Looking back at the most recent meeting with the Seahawks in Week 6, the Panthers had four different 80 yard scoring drives with the last one ending with a wide open Greg Olson catching a perfect strike from Newton in the end zone to lead the Panthers to a 27-23 win. In the fourth quarter, the only way to describe Cam Newton’s performance was phenomenal. He had one those blackouts like Will Ferrell in Old School where he was figuratively unconscious picking the “vaunted” Seahawks secondary apart. Now it is fair to mention that the Seahawks did not have their middle linebacker Bobby Wagner for that game and he is arguably the best defensive player on that team. The “Legion of Boom” was out there though and they couldn’t stop Olson. He finished with seven catches for 131 yards. Olson, along with Ginn, Funchess and Cotchery all had enormous catches throughout the game and then Cam and Jonathan Stewart really took advantage of the read-option plays as they averaged almost double the amount of yards per carry that they did when they ran just a straight run play with Stewart.
Another interesting note about this game is that Seattle will be without Jimmy Graham who seems to always show up on the Panthers schedule no matter what team he is playing for. Jimmy Graham had eight catches in that last meeting for 140 yards and was just un-guardable at points taking advantage of his size in certain situations. Graham is out for the season with a right leg injury so that should bode well for the Panthers matchups on defense, especially with an even more depleted secondary than before with Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere both falling victim to season ending injuries. We still have Josh Norman though and from what I remember of the previous matchup, I’m not sure Russell Wilson ever even attempted to throw at Norman, which is a decision I can’t argue against as he’s been outstanding this year in pass coverage shutting down number one receivers week in and week out.
Looking back at that game though, the Panthers had two turnovers while the Seahawks didn’t have any and one of the Seahawks two touchdowns came on a trick play where they handed off to Marshawn Lynch who carried the ball for a couple yards, turned and threw the ball back to Wilson, who then threw a bomb to Ricardo Lockette. Lockette somehow managed to outjump an extended Kurt Coleman and was able to bring the ball in right over Coleman’s head. It was an incredible play by Lockette, but a play that I’m sure Coleman would like to have back.
It’s time to be confident in the Panthers though. They know the Seahawks very well and matchup with them as well as anybody else in the NFL. They are both very similar teams. But Jonathan Stewart is going to have fresh legs for this one having pretty much sat out the month of December, Ted Ginn Jr., according to all reports, has his knee in good shape and is ready to go and the Panthers have had an extra week to get ready for this game and rest while Seattle has flown to Minnesota, played an entire game in conditions you can only describe as “Like the South Pole”, flew back to Seattle and now has to fly back across the country to play a 1 p.m. EST game, basically mid-morning in Seattle. People will still be eating breakfast at kickoff on the west coast. The Panthers need to play the same game they played back in Week 6 minus the two turnovers, they have to convert on third down, receivers cannot let the ball hit the ground when it’s thrown to them and the defense needs to get Russell Wilson on the ground or keep him in the pocket.
To try and answer my previous question of how we should put this season in perspective though, for the regular season, I think it could be the only time we’ll ever see 15-1. It’s just that difficult to win in the NFL but hopefully I’m wrong. Cam Newton is absolutely deserving of the MVP this year for proving just how valuable he is to this teams success. There is not another quarterback on this planet that could have done what Cam Newton did this season with the level of talent he had around him.
Then you have Ron Rivera who without a doubt deserves Coach of the Year. You can tell that he is beyond respected in that organization from top to bottom and has earned every bit of praise that he has received. To think of how the loud rumblings were at points that he was close to losing his job gets more amusing each day. Ron Rivera, Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly are here to stay through, in all likelihood, at least the next decade. They have already won three straight NFC South titles after there had never been a repeat winner in the previous 12 years since the division’s inception. The future is bright in the Carolinas and a win this weekend will catapult the legend of this season to unforeseen heights.
To all Panthers fans that will be in attendance on Sunday afternoon, I hope that you bring the noise and the passion that you’ve become known for. I wish I could be there as it will only be the third home playoff game that I have missed in the Panthers existence. I will be rooting from St. Petersburg by screaming at my TV and nervously pacing around my apartment while my girlfriend watches me in awe of how insane I look. Get that stadium rocking though and in the words of Thomas Davis, “DEFEND OUR DIRT!”