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It Is Going To Be Rough Sledding From Now On Because Folks Have Figured The Panthers Out

When the streak was 3 games in a row, the Panthers were a nice little story. When the streak became 5 games in a row, the Panthers were a curiosity. But now that the streak is 7 games in a row with back to back wins over San Fran and New England (and New England's comeback win over Denver eliminates the "how good are the Patriots REALLY" talk that was quickly trafficked about San Fran when and because the Panthers beat them) the Panthers are a playoff contender. Translation: a team that one has to gameplan for instead of having a better than even chance of beating just by showing up.

The problem: the gameplan is really simple. On offense: pretty much give up on running the football, adjust your blocking scheme to negate one of the defensive linemen and then go after probably the worst man-to-man coverage unit in the NFL (you may give up a sack or two but your QB won't face consistent pressure). On defense: stop the run/attack the OL generally and force Cam Newton to beat you with a group of pass-catchers that can't consistently (or really practically ever) truly beat a secondary or make big plays down the field. (Don't hate me for saying this: Steve Smith all but admitted it about himself when quoted in this article, and he is still the Panthers' best receiving threat by far.)

Now fortunately, a lot of potential wildcard teams play each other down the stretch and the NFC North is filled with QB questions, yet I still say that it is going to take at least 11-5 to get to the playoffs this season. Getting there won't be easy. The Jets have a tough defense and a QB who is mobile and can throw the deep ball. The Bucs and Falcons have played the Panthers once and will be able to make adjustments. In both original games, don't let the final score fool you: there were a few key plays that turned what could have been close contests into routs. And while the Saints may not be the best team that the Panthers will play this year, they are the team that is most capable of exploiting the Panthers' weaknesses in pass coverage. (Kuechly will be matched up against Jimmy Graham often, for instance, plus there will be Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Marques Colston to provide their various matchup problems.)

Basically, the Panthers are going to have to treat each game as "the most important game in the history of the franchise (or at least this current version of it, the Rivera/Newton/Kuechly regime)" because quite frankly it is. Losing to the Dolphins, for instance, would have forced the Panthers to go 4-1 against the rest of their schedule to make 11-5. Now they "only" have to go 3-2. Whoopee!

A good man-to-man CB and/or a reliable deep (or even intermediate) threat and/or capable NFL starters on the right side of the OL would make all the difference because it would force teams to play the Panthers differently, more honestly. Since the Panthers lack those things, it is going to require more great individual efforts from the likes of Newton, Kuechly, Davis etc. to make that 3-2. Newton is going to have to be a Pro Bowl caliber dual threat QB, playing at the level of guys like Fran Tarkenton, Steve Young, Randall Cunningham, John Elway, Donovan McNabb etc. in their primes as a passer and runner to get it done, and the LBs are going to have to come up with sacks, forced fumbles and big plays in coverage. Otherwise, the Panthers are going to have to rely on a level of incompetence on the part of the opposition that cannot merely be assumed.

I say that the Panthers are catching a break because they are getting a suddenly resurgent Bucs in Carolina. (Yes, they beat the Lions on the road, but Cam Newton's next 4 INT game will be his first.) It would also be good to hope that the Jets drop another game so that by the time they play the Panthers they will be eliminated from the playoffs. (Although as the Jets have both Miami and Oakland at home before traveling to play the Panthers, that is unlikely.)

But bottom line: now is not the time to think that the Panthers can kick back and take it easy. Because teams are now taking the Panthers seriously and gameplanning for them, getting to 11-5 will be as or more difficult than was getting to 8-3. Expect close, tight games like the last 3 weeks to be the rule rather than the exception.

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