The win on Sunday wasn't convincing, it was far too close and shined a light on the major deficiencies the Panthers have on offense. None of it mattered in the end, with Cam Newton rising to the occasion at precisely the right time to secure his first win in Atlanta and win the NFC South.
It was a game that typified the Panthers' season as a whole. Frustrating for one quarter and slowly becoming a joy later on. In 2012 we'd see these kind of comebacks too late in the game, but simply shifting the comeback into the second quarter has changed the team's fortunes.
Make no mistake: Carolina is a defensive team, despite having Newton. He's the focal point week in, week out -- and the Pro Bowl quarterback on the roster, but there isn't much inspiring happening on offense, especially with Steve Smith out of the fold.
It's a lesson in how much a good defense can mask a bad offense that 2013 has been one of the worst offensive seasons in team history, and you'd never really notice it. Carolina is scoring less points than the 5-10-1 Minnesota Vikings (let that sink in) but continue to find ways to win because of an aggressive defense.
The Panthers are dangerous though, and a team nobody wants to see in the playoffs. It's a team built like the New York Giants when they went on their Super Bowl run, or the the Panthers in 2003 -- overwhelming on the defensive line and almost impossible to scheme for.
Glass half full...
Smitty will be back. Thank goodness for him too. The 2013 season has been a bad one for the veteran receiver, but he makes big plays when it counts and keeps defenses honest. Atlanta had no reason to respect the pass for much of the game, throwing overload blitzes at Newton to throw off his rhythm.
When Smith gets back in the fold he will be able to ensure teams can't simply stack the box. It's a case of the threat being more than the end result, and it opens up running lanes for Cam.
Do you stick Greg Hardy's day in half full or half empty? I'm not really sure. Four sacks was an other-worldly achievement, but goodness it's going to be near-impossible to keep him long term. I wholly expect the Panthers will tag in 2014, and try to work a long-term deal -- but at this point he's a Pro Bowl defensive end with 15.0 sacks.
Good luck with that.
There were plenty of times on Sunday that Newton was utterly infuriating. He threw high, wide and everything in between, but settled again to find his stride. He's an odd quarterback who gets better when he's able to run the ball. It seems to clear his head and relax him, causing him to play looser. If I had my way I'd see Newton get a designed run on every opening drive, just to clear his head. It's like a goalkeeper touching the ball to get out the bad mojo, he needs his moment.
Glass half empty...
It's really scary that the Packers made the playoffs. Aaron Rodgers gets a full week to practice and shake out the cobwebs and suddenly it feels like Green Bay is one of the scariest teams in the NFC.
Anything else is nitpicking. Take the week off, watch the film and process it. There was a lot of emotion on Atlanta's part, and Carolina wasn't ready for it early. Now the playoffs are here the Panthers can't afford to get in an early hole.
Fans have been incredible this season. You all deserve this for traveling, cheering in the rain, being here week-in and week-out to enjoy this bizarre and amazing season. The playoffs are your reward, and this week will be so much fun to look ahead to possible opponents rather than potential draft picks.