The league is going to be on fire with talk of the New Orleans Saints as the best team in the NFL after their win over the Los Angeles Rams. The previously undefeated Rams, the Saints, the New England Patriots, and the Kansas City Chiefs have been the stories of the season as far as the league is concerned. Their offenses are lightning rods for attention and impossible for defenses. The Carolina Panthers, meanwhile, came out of the gates this season with more of a stumble than a start.
Their offensive explosion in the last three games rivals what the media darlings have produced without garnering quite as much attention. They are going to be mentioned frequently, but they will be cast in the role of an obstacle for the Saints. For now there is only so much air to fill and the Panthers might not make the cut as an elite team. That’s irrelevant to their hopes this season.
It may have taken a few games to figure out how to use all of their pieces on offense, but their record is still in striking distance of the best in the league. They have won their last three games because of a newfound willingness to put their skill position players in successful situations. Last season saw three losses to the Saints in part because their defense had no answer to Alvin Kamara, but mostly because their offense couldn’t keep up.
There is still a gulf between the Saints and the Panthers on offense. That will exist until the Panthers prove it doesn’t in a head-to-head contest. The ability to use Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, and D.J. Moore consistently and creatively makes that gulf seem smaller than it once did. They have scored 33 points per game over the last three games. That’s more than their season mark in 2015. The Panthers seem destined to play the Saints three times again this season. Their new look offense will be the difference in those games — if the Panthers are able to overcome them at all.
Their offense isn’t the only unit finding creative solutions to problems. The Panthers began the season a little slow in the secondary and struggling to produce pressure. Eric Washington’s first year as defensive coordinator has been rocky to say the least. Much of that has changed with the integration of Eric Reid into the defense. The secondary is now producing turnovers at a greater rate than last years’ and the Panthers are getting a variety of players, including Reid, involved in blitzes that are finally producing results.
They are still uncomfortably old at defensive end, a fact that is now unavoidable. Washington has to keep finding ways to manufacture pressure outside of his traditional pass rushers if the Panthers are to have a chance in the playoffs. The offense may be the key to beating the Saints, but balance will be required to tackle the rest of the league. They will have the luxury of competing with less of a circus than they had in 2015 until they face New Orleans.
Every game between now and January shapes what the Panthers postseason will look like. At 6-2, they are all but guaranteed a wild card berth at the least. It would require a fantastic failure or travesty of bad fortune for the Panthers to fall short of that. Whether or not they struggle with the Saints, return to bad coaching habits, or grow too long in the tooth on defense between now and then will tell us what this season is. Right now, everything is still in front of them.