Before the 2015 NFL season started, the thoughts on the Carolina Panthers were full of questions regarding their immediate future. The loss of running back DeAngelo Williams suggested that the offense was finally ready to abandon its power rushing approach and instead allow QB Cam Newton to be the focal point. Already with four years of NFL experience, Newton entered 2015 still at the tender age of 26, so the franchise was banking on that potential to propel Carolina to new heights.
Still, prognosticators were not impressed. The Panthers finished the offseason with a Vegas over/under of 8.5 wins, right around the same number of its NFC South counterparts, with the Falcons listed at 9 wins and the Saints at 8. The thought was that again the South would be a lousy division, and any of these three teams had similar opportunities to hover around .500 and contend for a weak playoff spot.
Instead, the Panthers blew by that total on Week 10, Newton has become the frontrunner for MVP, and the Panthers are on the verge of making history. It’s important to remember at this point that just last season, Carolina stood at 3-8-1 with many wondering if the Auburn alum was the right quarterback for the future. From that point on, the Panthers have won 17 straight regular season games, a Wild Card playoff contests, and with their only loss coming shorthanded against the eventual NFC champs. This turnaround has been stunning for the franchise, who had never even surpassed 12 wins over a full season before.
Carolina’s +168 point differential is the best in the NFL, and while it suggests the acumen of a 10-win team, everyone needs a bit of luck if they want to go 13-0. Even while the Panthers have looked erratic from time to time, they’ve had the pulse to win close games (5-0 in games decided by a touchdown), while also taking 7 double-digit victories. They are first in points scored and fourth in points allowed, while both their total offense and defense rank in the top 10. They also lead the league with a +18 turnover margin, with #2 Kansas City being far behind at +12. In many ways, the Panthers have been the best team in the NFL, and have the look and the numbers that prove it.
When the Panthers moved to 9-0, they became one of the two teams (along with New England) to survive more than half the season unbeaten. At that point, projections gave them around a 2% chance of completing a perfect 16-0 season. The questions then were if the Panthers could do it, but now that they are 13-0 and with home field advantage all but secured for the playoffs, the question has shifted to ask if the Panthers should try to go for perfection. The same projection systems now give Carolina a 44% forecast of finishing 16-0, which still could be underselling what the Panthers could achieve.
The Panthers have become just the eighth team in the Super Bowl era to start 13-0, but that hardly guarantees any kind of championship success. The 2007 Patriots remain the standard for almost perfect seasons, as an impressive 16-0 regular season was erased when they lost the Super Bowl. Considering the pressure of trying to complete a perfect season, and the possibility to maximize player rest and health down the final stretch, Carolina has the rare opportunity to absorb a loss or two with no real consequences, and thus providing its players a better chance to win a ring.
Just in Week 14’s dismantling of the Falcons, Carolina saw what a few unlucky breaks can do, as some of its most important players left the game with injuries. Cam Newton and defensive standout Luke Kuechly suffered minor bruises, while other players like Greg Olsen and Jonathan Stewart were sent to the locker room for precautionary reasons. While it made sense to be cautious in the middle of a 38-0 blowout, the rest of the regular season could provide a new set of challenges if the Panthers decide to play at full strength.
The biggest test for the Panthers will surely come in Week 15, when they have to travel to the Meadowlands and face the Giants. New York is clinging to its playoff life by a thread, even at a mediocre 6-7, so they will have the motivation and the weapons to give Carolina a big challenge. The Panthers opened as 7-point favorites, but that number may be too inflated considering what the Giants have been able to do against quality opponents. They had a chance to stop New England’s run at perfection and came painfully close, so now the Panthers will face a similar situation.
If Carolina clears this hurdle, they have a couple of favorable matchups in which they should be favored by more than a touchdown if they choose to play their starters. A road game in Atlanta is just no longer a scary thought, while getting a chance to clinch the perfect season at home versus the Buccaneers may be too tempting to pass up if they enter at 15-0. Even as the Falcons and Bucs are still on the outskirts of the playoff race, they are just too far below Carolina’s level to be considered serious threats.
From now to the end of the regular season, Carolina’s run at perfection will be one of the most fascinating storylines in the NFL. Along with Cam Newton’s ascent to MVP status and Ron Rivera’s continued penchant for the dramatic, the Panthers have become the right mix of quality and compelling, with superstars and character guys building up a roster that now has a unique chance to create history.
The NFC playoffs will also give Carolina a big set of challenges, but at this point it would be tough to bet against a team that has found ways to win big, win ugly, or simply do what it takes to remain undefeated. For what it’s worth, I think that a coach like Rivera can handle the pressure of what a 16-0 record would entail, and so the Panthers should take the chance of going all-in for a perfect season. Odds are that an opportunity like this one will never come along again, and that the 1972 Dolphins could use some company among the ranks of the unbeaten.
Every Carolina game has now become must-see TV, and even if they lose at some point, we should all marvel at what the Panthers have been able to do in a season where they were pegged to be a fringe contender.