The Carolina Panthers are on the hottest of winning streaks in the NFL.
What a difference six weeks can make. After starting 1-3, the Panthers look set to disappoint once again.
Ron Rivera seemed like a dead man walking and it was being suggested that Cam Newton could be replaced by Derek Anderson.
Six wins later, with two over elite teams in New England and San Francisco, Rivera is now Riverboat Ron and Newton is established firmly as the franchise quarterback they hoped he’d be.
The Panthers are not only a playoff contender, but a serious threat to make a run at the Lombardi trophy.
The development of Newton is one of the main reasons this team has managed to completely turn around their season.
Newton has always been able to put up numbers. With 62 touchdowns (passing and rushing) in his first two seasons and over 9000 total yards produced he was as statistically impressive as any other young quarterback in the game.
However, with the likes of Luck and Wilson winning double digit games and taking their teams to the playoffs questions arose if Newton was capable of the same.
His development this season has enabled the team to finally produce the wins to go alongside his statistical output.
Cam Newton has produced five games with a quarterback rating better than 100 and in the Panthers winning streak he has only thrown three interceptions.
He has shown better awareness in the pocket, taking what the defense gives him with checkdowns to his running backs to keep drives alive rather than forcing the ball deep.
Whilst he still struggles at time with accuracy on shorter throws, he is spreading the ball around much more effectively, honing in on Steve Smith less and giving players like Ginn and LaFell chances to make plays.
Newton has developed as a pocket passer, but is such a deadly threat as a runner, as shown by his crazy run Monday night, that teams have to try and now respect both after selling out to stop him making plays with his legs before.
Newton has always been criticised for his sideline demeanour. When other quarterbacks will be rallying the troops in close games situation you’ll often see Newton alone on the bench, head draped in his infamous towel.
But nothing cures these issues like winning. It’s unfair to judge quarterbacks solely on winning. Is Newton a better quarterback this year? Yes, but he was the previous years when the Panthers were struggling to win games.
Newton is a proven winner, with two national titles at college level. He still has a lot to work on in regards to the intricacies of the position but being labelled a loser was unfair when his supporting cast, especially his defense has previously been so poor.
Which brings me on to the other biggest reason the Panthers are now Super Bowl contenders.
This defense is nasty, plain nasty. They are allowing a league leading 13.5 points per game and only allow less than 300 yard per game.
That is almost otherworldly. To put the development of the defense into perspective, in Newton’s rookie season in 2011, they allowed 26.8 points per game. This drastic evolution to an elite level of play has been down to some great drafting by the Carolina front office.
Luke Kuechly was the defensive rookie of the year in 2012 and anchors this defense from the middle linebacker position. A position of weakness at defensive tackle has turned into one of strength after drafting Star Lotulelei and Kewann Short. These players, along with a miraculously rejuvenated Thomas Davis have been the reason this team is so dominant up front.
In previous years this defense has been just as responsible for the Panthers inability to win games as Newton. Now that they are such a formidable unit, a lot of pressure has been alleviated from Newton. He now doesn’t have to play perfect to win games, as evident in the game against San Francisco.
The Panthers are one game behind the first place Saints for the NFC South division title. They have proved in the past two week that they can stand toe to toe with any team in the league.
They might fall short of taking the division title but they look set to take the fifth seed in the playoffs. Trust me, nobody in the NFC will want to face them in January.
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