Any attempt to discuss the 2013 Carolina Panthers sounds like a back handed complement. This is a team that does what they're supposed to do, doesn't do anything eye-popping and refrains from gimmicks. The result might not always be pretty, but they're winning -- and could be the best iteration of the Panthers in the last ten years, provided they can find a signature win.
Ron Rivera talked early this season about his lack of risk taking coming from a belief it was too early in the season to show a sense of urgency. It was a maddening example of his approach to football, where two games into a 16 game season still wasn't enough to lay it all on the line. The best thing that could have happened to this team was start 1-3. It forced Rivera's hand, made him see the sense of urgency and suddenly the team responded.
The most reassuring element to Carolina's impressive win over Atlanta was that Cam Newton didn't need to be perfect. In recent weeks his strong streak made it tough to know whether this team was still capable of winning when Cam struggled, yet they prevailed again.
Sunday's game was fairly average from Cam. It wasn't bad, wasn't amazing -- it was a middling performance from a player we'd become accustomed to seeing sensational things from. Plenty of other quarterbacks were middling, Russell Wilson barely beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Alex Smith was nothing special as the Chiefs beat the Bills. It didn't matter that Newton wasn't perfect, because the team rallied around him and still gave the Panthers a chance to win.
It was a refreshing break from seeing the one man show, and this is what the team can build off moving forward.
Glass half full
New Orleans Saints fans wont admit it, but they're worried. The Carolina Panthers are one game behind, and the Saints loss to the Jets proved where their weaknesses lie. Still a team without a run game, that can't handle elite defensive lines. It allowed Drew Brees to throw for scores of pointless yards, but wasn't enough to put points on the board. To this end the Panthers match up very well, they have the defensive line and the ground game to give a still-weak defense troubles and with two games to play between the sides it's entirely possible the lead is flipped.
Carolina knows how to win now. It took a long time, but the realization that the Panthers can beat any team is finally becoming ingrained in the organization. In the past we've heard bravado from players, but you wonder if they ever really believed it. Talk was cheap and it got people pumped up, but this wasn't a team that played like it could beat anyone in the NFL, until now.
Jonathan Stewart was very good in his first game back, despite some early struggles. He picked up where he's left off -- being "the guy" when DeAngelo Williams is ineffective. One half of Double Trouble was struggling, sub in the second and the team never missed a step. It's wonderful to see, and could be the difference maker moving forward.
Brandon LaFell deserves special recognition too for becoming the best weapon in the passing game on a day where Steve Smith was covered. He made the most of his opportunities and picked up a lot of hard catches, including a vital pass interference penalty.
Defensively the Panthers were great once again. There are a few things you'd like to see them tighten up on run support, and the team will need to decide how its going to cover tight ends (especially when they see Jimmy Graham) but there's not much to nit pick here.
Glass half empty
If you really want to be down on this team then all you have left is quality opponents. Lets face it, there hasn't been a lot of competition over the last month.
Yes, every NFL team get breaks, but if you really want to analyze this team rather than hold up a supporter's sign, then you want to see them continue this kind of play against the San Francisco 49ers next week. It doesn't need to be a 30-point win, but you don't want to see the Panthers lay an egg.
The schedule has some favorable games and some tough ones, but the Panthers are still searching for their signature win. Even other teams with soft schedules have one -- Kansas City beat the Cowboys and Eagles, Seattle beat San Francisco and Indianapolis beat Denver. In order to really be taken seriously the Panthers need to beat a team with more than three wins.
It's simple. They can do it.
You should be thrilled with your Carolina Panthers. It's not always pretty, but neither was 2003. Cam Newton is more confident than we've ever seen him, and we're starting to see the rest of the team play up to his level rather than lag behind.
Getting that signature win is the next step. If that happens in San Francisco then watch out, because suddenly you'll hear this team being mentioned in the elite of the NFC. They have the talent, now they need to show the guts.