October 16, 2020

It's Time to Start Taking the Carolina Panthers Seriously

In the NFL, starting the season 0-2 tends to be a death sentence, right? Well, it looks like someone forgot to tell the Carolina Panthers. After they lost their first two games of the season, many projected it would be a long season for Carolina and new head coach Matt Rhule. But the Panthers have responded with three consecutive wins, bringing them into a three-way tie atop the NFC South alongside the Saints and Buccaneers, neither of which have looked overly convincing this season.

Admittedly, nobody in Charlotte should be ordering Super Bowl shirts just yet. However, the rest of the NFC needs to watch out for the Panthers because they are starting to look like playoff contenders.

No Christian, No Problem

The most surprising part of Carolina’s three-game winning streak is that the Panthers have managed to turn their season around without Christian McCaffrey, the best running back in the NFL. Carolina lost McCaffrey to a high-ankle sprain in Week 2. It’s an injury that is expected to keep him sidelined for at least four-to-six weeks. With the Panthers sitting at 0-2 and set to spend at least a month without McCaffrey, Carolina’s prospects looked bleak.

However, Mike Davis has come out of nowhere to save the Panthers. The former South Carolina running back has filled in admirably for McCaffrey. He’s averaging 73 rushing yards per game since becoming the starter and has given the Panthers a physical presence who’s not afraid to run between the tackles. Davis has also helped replace some of McCaffrey’s productivity as a receiver. In his last four games, Davis has caught 30 passes for over 200 yards and two touchdowns. It’s not quite what the Panthers got from McCaffrey last season, but it’s a lot more than they expected to get when their All-Pro running back was sidelined.

Teddy Ballgame

While Davis has been a key contributor, the centerpiece for Carolina’s turnaround has been quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. There was some skepticism before the season about what the Panthers were getting with Bridgewater. After all, he’s barely played since 2015 outside of a few starts for New Orleans last year when Drew Brees was hurt. But the Panthers have thus far received more than they bargained for with Bridgewater.

After a couple of shaky starts to begin the season, the 27-year-old passer has found his stride over the last three weeks. He’s thrown five touchdown passes compared to only one interception while averaging 275 passing yards per game during that span. Even if the Panthers averaging 25 points per game during their three-game winning streak isn’t overly impressive, Bridgewater has been ultra-efficient, completing close to 75% of his passes over the last three weeks. He’s even showed a little mobility, specifically on his rushing touchdown against the Cardinals in Week 4.

In fairness, the supporting cast around Bridgewater has also stepped up over the last three weeks. An offensive line that looked problematic early in the year hasn’t allowed a sack in back-to-back games. The return of Russell Okung has been a gamechanger for the Carolina offensive line, helping to improve the performance of the players around him. 

Meanwhile, the Panthers are developing a formidable trio of receivers. D.J. Moore is on pace to top the numbers he put up last season. Robby Anderson has given Carolina a bonafide No. 1 receiver, amassing at least 99 receiving yards in four of five games. Finally, Curtis Samuel adds even more speed to the group, which has kept defenses under pressure. It might not be the best receiving trio in the NFL, sure, but it’s been more than good enough to get Bridgewater on track and win three straight games.

Defense Rhules

Of course, while Bridgewater has received much of the credit, the Carolina defense has also played a pivotal role in the Panthers' three-game winning streak after dropping their first two games of the campaign. The Panthers are starting three rookies in the front-seven and have a largely unproven secondary, so it’s expected that there will be some growing pains. However, Rhule’s roots as a defensive coach have helped the Carolina defense show drastic improvement over the last three weeks after giving up 30 points in each of their first two games.

To be fair, progress has been a little slow. The Panthers had no sacks and two takeaways in their first two games. However, they’ve amassed five sacks and six turnovers over the last three weeks. Even if they rank near the bottom of the NFL in those categories, things are undoubtedly trending in the right direction. Second-year defensive end Brian Burns and rookies Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos are all coming along nicely. All three players have a chance to improve with each passing week, and slowly but surely make the Carolina defense better, which has already started to happen over the last three weeks.

The Road Ahead

Moving forward, there are many reasons to think that the Panthers can continue their recent ascent. As mentioned, Carolina’s young defense should continue to grow with each week. The Panthers have allowed 21 points or less in three consecutive games, which is a huge step up from the first two weeks of the season. If that trend continues, the Panthers will at least give themselves a chance to win every game they play.

Bridgewater and the Carolina offense are also in a good position to keep improving with each week. Keep in mind that he’s still readjusting to being a starter and becoming comfortable with a new set of wide receivers. The more he plays, the better he’ll get, especially since the 27-year-old should be entering the prime of his career. More importantly, the Panthers have a stable offensive line and running game to support Bridgewater. With the promise of McCaffrey returning from injury later in the year, we haven't seen the Carolina offense at its best, either.

With the Saints and Buccaneers tied with Carolina at 3-2 ahead of Week 6, the Panthers will be in for a fight for the rest of the season if they hope to surprise the league and win the NFC South. But Bridgewater and the Panthers should not be overlooked, even in a division with Brees and Brady. They’ll face a difficult stretch over the next month, but Carolina’s schedule down the stretch is quite manageable. With the momentum and confidence that comes with three straight wins, it’s time for the rest of the league to be on the lookout for Carolina and start taking the Panthers seriously.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration