NFL

Can The Carolina Panthers Go 16-0?

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With their Thanksgiving Day 33-14 demolition of the Dallas Cowboys, the Carolina Panthers are currently atop the NFC with an 11-0 record.

It’s time to stop discounting the Panthers, who were actual underdogs in Dallas, and begin to appreciate a truly great team.

The 2015 version of great, that is.

There are no more elite, all-time teams.  Even the undefeated Panthers and New England Patriots have significant “warts.”  This is a product of the salary cap era, along with a pretty even distribution of coaching acumen.

Instead of harping on what the Panthers don’t have (mainly at wide receiver), let’s talk about what they do have.  A quarterback whose as impressive as any in the NFL, and has been wrongly labeled a cheater (not on the field), a thug and even a criminal, without him having even one single indiscretion since being drafted first-overall in 2011.

Cam Newton is probably the most hated great athlete who might be a better person than he is quarerback.

“We’re very fortunate as we have one of the biggest pieces you look for in Cam (Newton) and he’s been rewarded well for his play,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said.

Newton has taken his game to new heights, even though sometimes the stat-sheet doesn’t reflect it.  He does whatever the team needs him to do to win on a weekly basis, even if it’s simply handing off out of the spread and being a 6-foot-6, 250 pound decoy.

“He’s a special player and the big thing about Cam (Newton) is that he’s grown up so much each and every year and he’s really become that quarterback that you want in a franchise guy,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil told Football Insiders.

Although Newton is the unquestioned leader of the offense and team lightning rod, linebacker Luke Kuechly might be his defensive equal.  The former first-round pick from Boston College is already the best linebacker in football at the age of 24, and he captains the defense and makes big plays, including a pair of interceptions including a pick-six in the Panthers 33-14 victory over the Cowboys.

“He has complete command of what we do,” Rivera said of Kuechly.  “He drops in coverage perfectly when we need him to and he just fits the system perfectly.”

The New England Patriots might also be undefeated and they currently have the hardware from their Super Bowl XLIX trophy, but make no mistake the Carolina Panthers are the best team in the NFL right now.

Where New England is trying to figure out how to move the football with all of the injuries to their receivers, the Panthers just keep plugging along, even after they lost their best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, for the season with a torn ACL in training camp.

“You’re never happy when you lose a No. 1 receiver,” Panthers quarterback Joe Webb said. “Kelvin’s (Benjamin) is a great player and he’ll be truly missed, but when one goes down someone else has to step up.”

Newton and the Panthers are making chicken salad out of lemonade out of lemons in the passing game and are running the ball enough to keep teams honest.  Without an elite receiver or even a legitimate No. 2, Newton is forced to be nearly perfect throwing the football and that’s exactly what he’s doing.

So can the Panthers go 16-0?

At this point they have a better shot at it than the Patriots do.

Let’s examine the Panthers final five games.

12/6 at New Orleans:  The Saints defense is about as obstructive to offenses as playing against air, and the Panthers have 10 days to prepare.  New Orleans is a division rival and although you can probably expect a close game, nothing says that the Panthers shouldn’t be able to handle their neighbors to the southwest.

12/13 vs. Atlanta:  The Atlanta Falcons have been in a tailspin and there’s no reason to believe that the same team which lost to the Indianapolis Colts with a backup quarterback should be able to take down the potential league MVP on the road.

12/20 at New York Giants:  This is a game which the Panthers could lose on the road as the Giants will likely be fighting for a division title.  With that said, New York is one-dimensional and Carolina has one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in Josh Norman to match up with Odell Beckham.

12/27 at Atlanta:  It’s tough to beat a team twice in three weeks, but the Panthers are also a much better team than the Falcons are.  Carolina has beaten the Falcons four out of the last five meetings and haven’t lost in Atlanta since 2012.

1/3 vs. Tampa Bay: The Bucs might or might not be in the playoff race in the last week of the season and if the Panthers are 15-0 they will certainly try to attain perfection.  It’s unlikely that Tampa Bay can win that game on the road, especially considering that Carolina has beaten them five straight times.

Carolina ought to be favored in their remaining games and they’re peaking and mostly healthy entering the most important part of the regular season.  It’s unlikely that “Riverboat Ron” (Rivera) will take his foot off the accelerator when the team is playing as well as it is, so 16-0 is a certain possibility.

A Super Bowl title is the most important goal, but who’s to say 16-0 and a Lombardi Trophy have to be independent of one another?


About Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein

Charlie Bernstein is the managing football editor for Football Insiders and has covered the NFL for over a decade.  Charlie has hosted drive time radio for NBC and ESPN affiliates in different markets around the country, along with being an NFL correspondent for ESPN Radio and WFAN.  He has been featured on the NFL Network as well as Sirius/XM NFL Radio and has been published on Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated, ESPN as well as numerous other publications.