The Carolina Panthers are teetering on the edge of falling out of post season contention. A warm pile of missed opportunities doesn’t really smell like moral victories unless there is enough season left to apply their lessons. At 5-4 and with the Seattle Seahawks, Indianapolis Colts, and New Orleans Saints (twice!) still on their schedule, the Panthers have little margin for error and, frankly, little margin for success in a tight NFC wildcard race. Even a 12-4 Panthers team isn’t guaranteed a wild card spot.
Hilariously, the New Orleans Saints loss at home to the Atlanta Falcons yesterday has given the Panthers control over their own destiny in the division. Winning out would match the best possible record the Saints could also post under those circumstances. Tied at 12-4 with two head-to-head wins over New Orleans would give the NFC South crown to Carolina.
Now, I’m not saying that I believe the the Panthers are anywhere close to being a 12-4 team right now. They have yet to put together a convincing performance against a good team, in my opinion. But, like the Saints losing at home to the 2019 Falcons or the Falcons being the Falcons for their whole history, anything is possible in the NFL. That possibility is all I really need to keep a bright eye on the Panthers future.
I hope we never have to see them again
The Green Bay Packers are one of the all-time teams for any number of reasons. Smart management and and all-time quarterbacks rank among them. Getting advantageous officiating is a reason that is easy to allege, but much harder to prove. Did the Packers benefit from a number of insane calls? Yes. Is Aaron Rodgers the only person who can throw a safety for a first down (intentional grounding in the end zone is a safety)? Also yes. Did the Panthers benefit from some bad calls, too? Also also yes.
We’re getting this out of the way first because it is silly and it probably won’t come up in quite this way again. We know the league plays favorites with certain quarterbacks. There’s nothing we can do about that. The optimistic part of this is that it is not a common part of Panthers game outside of how poor officiating is across the league. The part time officials are a consistent problem for every team, but that isn’t news. They didn’t decide this game and, while they will affect them, they won’t decide any of the rest of the Panthers games either.
Speaking of consistent problems, don’t look at the defense
The Panthers defense got wrecked on Sunday to the point that I was surprised at the final score. It seemed weird they only gave up 24 points. They gave up a 163 yards on the ground, they didn’t force a single turnover, and they allowed a 118 of Aaron Rodgers 233 passing yards to be completed to Davante Adams. They clearly missed James Bradberry on top of what was just a weird day.
The San Francisco 49ers wrecked the Panthers with chunk plays, too. But theirs came with a lot of Kyle Shanahan branded chicanery. The Packers chunks came off of poor gap discipline and poorer tackling. Again, refer to the above section if you have a specific complaint regarding the officiating.
What we saw on Sunday was not characteristic of the Panthers defense. That defense is something that we have a pretty good feel for through nine games now. They should bounce back so long as they can start getting healthier instead of more injured.
The Panthers might have found a replacement for Steve Smith
The one thing getting unequivocally healthier is D.J. Moore’s role in this offense. He posted his second consecutive 100-yard game against Green Bay and has now caught 54 passes for 684 yards this season. Projected across a full 16 game season, that stat line becomes 96 catches for 1,216 yards. That’s not bad for a guy who is effectively playing second fiddle in this offense to Christian McCaffrey. The only thing missing from his season are the touchdowns, of which he has only caught one this season. They will come with time.
The second year pro out of Maryland is quickly establishing himself as the number one receiver in the Carolinas. That gives the team something to work with beyond the multiple dimensions that McCaffrey brings by himself. As Allen begins to find his comfort zone, a reliable number one receiver is only going to open things up in terms of easy throws to his tight end and and running backs.
At this point, we largely know what Allen and McCaffrey bring to the table. The evolution of Moore—which, frankly, has probably coincided with Allen settling down under center—is the next necessary step for the Panthers to become a team that can sweep the Saints. He hasn’t taken over a game yet, with his efforts against the Packers being the closest he has come, but he is only a few big plays away. We know he has the talent and now he has proven that he can handle the load on smaller plays.
Again, I doubt these Panthers are a 12-4 team. If they are, however, then Moore’s breaking out will be a key part of their record. All they really have left to do is have the defense bounce back and the refs blow a few calls in their favor. In other words, the rest of their season just has to be about playing football.