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Monday Morning Quarterback: Are you having fun yet?

The Panthers played their dumbest game yet, against their dumbest opponent, and it was all a damn fine time.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The Carolina Panthers may not be waking up this morning as the first team in the NFC South. They are, in fact, now in fourth place in the division. The Panthers are, however, waking up with a newly passionate fanbase. Yesterday was a game with real live playoff implications and the Panthers were in it down to the last second. That is a relevancy and a level of competency that this team hadn’t threatened its fans with in years. It is also a level of excitement that most of us thought was still years away.

Sure, DJ Moore should have kept his helmet on and Eddy Piñeiro should have made either of his game winning kicks. Fans are livid about both moments, so much so that somebody edited Piñeiro’s knowledge panel on Google (that thing where Google populates info from Wikipedia and other sources so that you don’t click away from their search results for basic info on a person or place) to say that he was “a loser.”

First of all, that’s quite rude. The man walked in off the street and provided about the only offensive scoring this team saw through six weeks. I get that he fell flat on a big stage, but that’s no reason to bring a personal insult into the equation.

Second of all, that’s fantastic. Nobody cared enough about this team under the last head coach to be that petty. Being hurt by a football team requires them to get your hopes up first. That’s not something that Matt Rhule’s Panthers were known for. Steve Wilks’ Panthers, on the hand, did that in just three games. I love that.

Credit should go where it is due, and it is due beyond just the coaching staff. The NFC South is hilariously dumb this season. If the Panthers had won yesterday they would have held the division lead by virtue of a tie breaker while each team held a 3-5 record. How can you not laugh at that?

Alas, we can’t have everything we want.

Here is what I loved from yesterday’s dumb—in the best possible way—loss to the Falcons:

D’Onta Foreman and Bradley Bozeman

The Panthers can talk all they want about not finding a way to finish that game, but the truth is that they wouldn’t have been within 118 yards and three touchdowns of that game without the effort that D’Onta Foreman put into that game. He’s making that Christian McCaffrey trade look better and better each day. We can safely assume that Foreman will be a priority re-signing this offseason, regardless of who the coach is.

Another priority signing will be Bradley Bozeman. His two starts at center have seen the Panthers two most consistent ground games all season. That is no coincidence. He also gets bonus points for being the first guy on the sidelines to talk to PJ Walker after the pick-six. That’s a good team mate right there.

These were two big changes in personnel that affected how the Panthers run the football. Those changes have only been for the better.

PJ Walker

Foreman and Bozeman got lumped together not just because they are helping the Panthers produce more yards, but also because they are doing so in a way that takes a ton of heat off of Walker. The quarterback’s early performance was less than stellar in a way that would have sunk this team just four weeks ago. Instead, the Panthers were able to lean on the run game until Walker pulled himself together and then he was able to start pulling his own weight.

The offense is working right now because these Carolina Panthers are a threat to both run and pass the ball. Their job isn’t to “find a way to get over the hump,” it’s to find a way to start hotter in the passing game. That is a much more specific and, consequently, more attainable goal than the vague platitudes that defined both the coaching by and the analysis of the previous regime.

I still don’t think the Panthers are a playoff team, but what Walker put together in the second half has me open to the idea that the Panthers might well be playing the Falcons for the division lead when they see each other in Charlotte in two weeks on Thursday Night Football.

All of this stems from the idea that Walker isn’t a bad quarterback, just a guy who needs good coaching. Finding a way to quickly traverse the distance between 1st quarter PJ and 4th quarter PJ could be the difference in a lot of games. This is the guy who wasn’t allowed to throw past the the line of scrimmage against the Rams and then completed the longest pass in air yards in the history of the NFL Next Gen stats program.

Again, I’m laughing all the way through this because this was never supposed to be even remotely on the this team’s radar this year.

What’s next?

This team has a lot of roads in front of them right now. They are going to say they are all in on a division that is still very much up for grabs, but that may well fall out of their control as the season progresses. Somebody has to actually win the NFC South, right? As for not winning the division, that could go a couple ways on its own.

In the short term, they’ll be looking for a new kicker or a sports psychologist willing to relocate to Piñeiro locker. They may also be looking for some free agent witches from the Tampa area to place protection wards on their remaining healthy defenders.

Donte Jackson, who had his own great game yesterday, was carted off the field in the fourth quarter and said afterwards that he re-injured the same ankle he hurt weeks before. It is unclear as yet how long he’ll be out this time.

The rest of the season could be a slow deterioration of the Panthers physical condition or a string of ups and downs highlighted by supreme individual efforts. Either way, this team has excited the Panthers fan base and made the case for any number of players getting bigger roles next season. Beyond just Foreman and Bozeman, guys like Yetur Gross-Matos, Terrace Marshall Jr, and Shi Smith keep threatening big moments. I’m particularly keen on seeing those two receivers with more consistent quarterback play someday.

This already isn’t the same Panthers team that fired Rhule after a 1-4 start. Whether Wilks stays or new leadership is brought in is ultimately irrelevant to the fact that we are watching a fun team right now whose joyful moments are also the flashes of talent and promise that will be the foundation of a successful head coaching hire’s success. I’m thrilled because we’re seeing enough of those flashes and moments to believe that success could be as early as next season.

Hell, in this division, it could still be this season.