Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
It has been a long three years since the Carolina Panthers had their last three-game win streak. While some will deride Ron Rivera for only succeeding in 'garbage games', the reality is that the Panthers are playing strong, emotional football, and are showing that these late-game wins that they care about besting last year's record - even if that still means a sub-.500 season.
With one game in hand, the Carolina Panthers have tied their win record from last season. In 2011 a 6-10 year was a pleasant surprise, now 6-9 is utter disappointment. It remains to be seen if it will be enough to save Ron Rivera's job, but there's little denying that the current iteration of the Panthers look like a team who could beat most teams in the NFL.
The organization have made their decision, and Luke Kuechly is the middle linebacker of the future. Their choice to continue forward with the rookie in the middle is a sage one, as his performance has shown he's not only the best choice for the Panthers - but one of the best linebackers in the NFL. Sunday's game was absolutely mind-boggling from Kuechly in a way he hadn't really seen this season. Luke has had big games, and he's made an impact, however I don't think we've seen a collection of as many big plays as he had against the Raiders. It went beyond his second-quarter interception, and permeated all his 13 tackles. During the first half Luke made huge stops, and for the first time in his young career we saw the rookie linebacker fired up, and emotional. If Jon Beason is willing to restructure and move to the outside, Carolina will have the best linebacking corps in the NFL entering 2013.
Cam Newton was hot and cold on Sunday, but the highs outweighed the lows. Like Kuechly it was a rare game of emotion for the second-year quarterback, which likely contributed to his missteps. For the majority of the game he showed outstanding touch, particularly on his touchdown pass to Steve Smith - which could have been the best pass of his career. In the second half Newton became a little erratic. He fell in love with his arm, and made some really questionable throws. Coupled with this his emotions bubbled over, arguing with a referee and getting bad penalty. Ultimately he got away with a few terrible decisions, but it was more good than bad.
What else is there to say about Joe Adams? The forth-round rookie missed so much of the season on the bench because of his inability to keep his hands on the ball, and yet again he proved to be fumble-prone. It really can't be this difficult - and yet Adams continues to willingly hold the ball like a loaf of bread. Thankfully it wasn't a turning point, but he needs to work on that moving forward - lest he spends more time on the bench.
Luke Kuechly - Extremely Optimistic
I've run out of things to say. He's amazing.
Thomas Davis - Extremely Optimistic
If you took a football fan who hadn't watched the Carolina Panthers before, and told them to guess the guy with the thrice reconstructed knee - they wouldn't name Thomas Davis. With running backs, and receivers in the open field, TD looks like he's shot out of a cannon. Davis's closing speed looks better than it was pre-injury, and while Kuechly is getting the tackles - Davis is making plays week in, week out.
Greg Olsen - Extremely Optimistic
Within striking distance of Wesley Walls' single-season team record for a tight end. Needing just 22 yards, Olsen has been the Panthers' best receiver in cruch situations, and vital downs. Cam Newton is using him well, and it's showing.
Joe Adams - Extremely Pessimistic
Hold on to the football!
This team is playing good football, and while they got a lot of break on Sunday, they also did what it took to win. Ron Rivera made some gutsy coaching calls, and has finally shown the killer instinct so many were looking for early in the season.
With one game left, the Panthers will try to best their win total from 2011. New Orleans is a winnable game, but like Carolina they're playing some of their best football now also. The mark of 7-9 means nothing to most teams, but to Carolina it's an all-encompassing goal - and they wont stop, not yet.