Panthers vs. Dolphins: Monday morning report

Mike Ehrmann

It wasn't the prettiest, or the most dominant -- but dang if it wasn't the most impressive.

Carolina has completed its genesis from loveable losers, to loveable and finally to fearsome. Continuing to find reasons to doubt this team will only serve to show ignorance or bias. No team in the NFL has turned its fortunes around more than the Panthers, and Ron Rivera once again showed that turning to Cam Newton is what will not only save his job -- but could win him Coach of the Year.

The team's 20-16 win over Miami will prompt some to find reason to doubt, but if you've paid close attention to this team it's clear to see how this was a galvanizing moment. Newton was hit in the mouth early on Sunday, prompting some to wonder whether the Panthers quarterback sustained a concussion. His game deteriorated following the hit and bad habits sneaked back in. Newton didn't have his brain rattled, but rather his confidence. This was a player who hasn't really been hit quite like that before, and his offensive line couldn't protect him against an overwhelming Dolphins pass rush.

The game against the Dolphins impressed me more than anything else I've seen in 2013 -- possibly more than any other game since Newton arrived in Carolina

In past games this is where Newton would fold. Frustration would build, he'd lose trust in his teammates and the game would become impossible to win. That was the old Cam Newton, this is Cam 2.0. The defense was mediocre for much of the day, but did enough to keep the game within 10 points at halftime, this was all Newton needed.

The second half was the opposite for Newton, not just on the stat sheet but how he responded to the early adversity. He emerged from the locker room poised and ready to compete, much like the player we'd seen over the last month. Suddenly he was evading rushers again, he was lighter on his feet and became more accurate.

Had the Carolina Panthers well and truly learned from their past mistakes? It's easy to go for it on 4th and 1 in a game where you're tied, but it took an immense amount of guts for Ron Rivera to put the ball in Newton's hands with 2:33 left in the game, on his own 20-yard line and ask him to make at play on 4th and 10. This was the definative play of not only Rivera's coaching career, but Newton's playing career.

The Panthers quarterback was terrible for much of the day, but trust had come full circle. Newton believed in his teammates, and Rivera believed in his quarterback. The feedback loop closed, Steve Smith made the catch and from that moment on it was clear that Newton would not be denied.

It's understandable if you're not super amped over the four point win. Everyone will have a different reaction, but the game against the Dolphins impressed me more than anything else I've seen in 2013 -- possibly more than any other game since Newton arrived in Carolina. I stand by what I said shortly before the comeback began.

The 49ers and Patriots are both great teams and beating them was impressive, but this a definitive moment for anyone who has followed this team since day one of the Newton era. Carolina was struggling defensively, Newton was playing poorly and they did it. Sometimes it isn't about beating the teams you shouldn't, but rather bouncing back when you underperform.

In short: The sky's the limit. Watch out.

Glass half full...

It's really nice to have Jonathan Stewart back. I know some fans felt his return was an unnecessary luxury, but having another option was perfect on an afternoon where DeAngelo Williams couldn't run against the Dolphins defensive front. Giving a defense another look is often enough to change the pace and that's what happened as Stewart ran for as many yards as Williams on three less carries.

Newton was sensational running the ball in the second half and his poise on the game-winning touchdown pass showed something we wouldn't have seen from him in the past. Typically he would have rushed a pass to Smith, or tried hopelessly to run it in -- but he waited and made the right decision.

Graham Gano was unreal and Brad Nortman had a 72-yard punt! Special teams were fairly good following some early gaffs.

Glass half empty...

Hoo boy this defense doesn't work without Charles Johnson. The lack of edge rushing made it easy for Ryan Tannehill to step up in the pocket and find Mike Wallace, who had a field day against Captain Munnerlyn.

The secondary has maxed out based on its talent, that's important to understand. This was a game the Panthers desperately needed other members of the defensive line to step up, and they were mostly disappointing. I would feel a lot more shaky about this team if Johnson was seriously injured, but he'll return and take pressure off the rest of the team.

Drops plagued the offense and it wouldn't surprise me if Ted Ginn had some nerves returning to Miami. His dropped deep pass was uncharacteristic this season and almost cost the Panthers a win. Thankfully it wasn't the difference.

Overall outlook

Breathe in the cold Carolina air folks. If you don't live in these parts then open your freezer and breathe that air and imagine you're here. That feeling in your lungs is that of the ice-cold Panthers. This team knows what it takes to win, and if they walk into a game not knowing, they'll learn.

This is the most exciting season since 2003 and there's a very special feeling to this year. Perhaps the Panthers aren't Super Bowl bound, but they're ready to grab onto regular and sustained success. Enjoy the ride.

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