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Monday Morning Optimist: The Panthers didn’t beat the Rams, but they did look like the better team

Cam Newton proved he was healthy enough to shoulder the Panthers load while the rest of the team proved he won’t have to.

Los Angeles Rams v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The first half of Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams looked like a tired and familiar script to Carolina Panthers fans: with Carolina outplaying the other team only to find itself in a multiple possession hole. It was kind of that, but it was also a lot more. The second half ended with a three point loss at home to the reigning Super Bowl runners-up and the current darlings of the whole NFC. That is nothing to sneeze at for a team that ended its last season with an irrelevant win on top of a seven-game losing streak.

I’m not going to call this a statement loss, but it was a close loss that doesn’t leave me feeling desperate for answers. A few bounces or calls the other way and the Panthers are riding high. What I will call this loss, and what this game has been marked as for months, is a litmus test for Cam Newton’s arm. No matter how rusty Newton, or his offensive line, or his receivers, or his referees were in the season opener, the actual strength of his arm was going to be on display on Sunday. All the possible weirdness of a season opener wasn’t going to be able to hide that.

Week 1 is often cited as a time when anything can happen. Last season, the ultimate NFC South Champion New Orleans Saints lost in Week 1 to the hilarious clown show Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This season, the Jacksonville Jaguars scored 26 points in a loss. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson threw five touchdown passes, matching his entire 2018 total, en route to 59 points over the Miami Dolphins. The Arizona Cardinals and the Detroit Lions tied, because that is still even a thing in professional football. Things get weird in Week 1 and then they calm down.

It might not be the preseason anymore, but it isn’t that far removed for a lot of these guys. Cam Newton threw six passes in the entire preseason. His rust, which was only one contributing factor to the team’s loss on Sunday, is understandable. That doesn’t mean it is excused; it means that it is expected to get better. His shoulder, on the other hand, looked just fine. Assuming Newton’s few issues were due to his not having played meaningful football since Week 15 of 2018—and healthy snaps since at least Week 10— then we can all get excited about what we saw against the Rams.

Newton still completed 65 percent of his passes in a game where he sailed multiple throws intended for Greg Olsen, telegraphed a few bad choices to the wrong coast, and had to deal with an offensive line that was just as new to this season as he was.

That line, by the way, played remarkably well against a talented Rams defense. Aaron Donald only recorded one tackle. Dante Fowler was a terror, but he was so from every gap imaginable. No single Panthers lineman was exposed as a liability against one of the more talented pass rushing groups in the NFL.

The Panthers defense, in turn, was as advertised coming into the season. We saw a mix of three and four down linemen formations. They were faster off the snap and faster to the ball than I remember seeing in years. It’s not surprising that we saw them fade a little down the stretch as the heat sunk in and the absence of the injured Bruce Irvin and healthy scratch Vernon Butler exposed the limited depth of the Panthers front seven.

A loss is a loss and will suck no matter what, but the Panthers weren’t exactly beaten. The Rams did not best them at every turn. A few bounces here or there is how football works in a good game. The Panthers played a good game against the child-prodigy Sean McVay, two-time running Defensive MVP Aaron Donald, and the most-recently minted highest paid quarterback in the NFL in Jared Goff.

That those bounces all went the Rams way was mostly luck. The Panthers fumbles were the result of good plays by the Rams or questionable decision making by the refs. The Rams fumbles fell back into their own laps with minimal effort. Turnover luck is a huge part of most wins, and the Panthers fought back from that luck to make it a three point game. And we’re not even going to talk about those three points that sailed wide right with Joey Slye’s first career field goal attempt.

We’ll also bitch to our hearts’ content about the refs in this game later in the week. It isn’t healthy to keep those things bottled up inside, but they are representative of the weirdness of why the Panthers lost. They are basically irrelevant if you want to project the rest of the season.

For now, we know that both teams belonged on the same field. That isn’t something you would have said in the latter half of last season and isn’t something you would have said this offseason due to the looming specter of Newton’s health.

The Panthers got trashed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in prime time last season before Newton’s shoulder had fully left the building. They won a lot of their games before that by the skin of their teeth. That team was old and washed and didn’t quite belong at the top of the NFL. This team is young and fast on defense. It is healthy on offense. Newton passed his test and his team has the talent to flip the script from last season. These Carolina Panthers belong.

Carolina might be one down in the win column for now, but they played well enough for us to expect that to change. It has been a long time since Panthers fans have seen that. I don’t care if they end up 14-1 or 8-7 heading into the last week of the season. If there is a playoff spot on the line and the team still looks this promising then I won’t count them out until the math unequivocally says otherwise.