Jon Gruden has mentally penciled these Carolina Panthers into the playoffs already. His only question is how far they can go – and he thinks a berth in the Super Bowl is possible.
Gruden, who won a Super Bowl as Tampa Bay’s head coach, will be the lead analyst when Carolina hosts New England on “Monday Night Football” at 8:40 p.m. on ESPN in what will be the biggest home game the Panthers have had since the 2008 season.
We caught up by telephone Friday for a 15-minute interview. Gruden said he had been studying film of the Panthers and Patriots all week and had already decided he would be watching a game between two playoff teams Monday night.
“I think Carolina will end up winning 10 or 11 games this year,” Gruden said. “I just can’t tell you how impressed I am with that defense.”
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The former coach mentioned that while Seattle and San Francisco are often considered the class of the NFC, the Panthers beat the 49ers and could have beaten Seattle except for a late DeAngelo Williams fumble.
So what’s the high end for this Carolina team? I asked Gruden if the Panthers could reach the Super Bowl this year in the right situation.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Gruden said.
He continued: “I haven’t seen anybody hold San Francisco to 151 yards total offense. Have you? Especially on the road. Gosh, Carolina could have easily beaten Buffalo. ... This Panther team could easily be undefeated. There’s a lot of upside. Provided they stay healthy and take care of the football, this is a team that can do some damage.”
Despite all of that, Gruden isn’t saying that the Panthers (6-3) are going to beat New England (7-2). He’s simply saying that the Panthers have finally gotten to a point where they can hang with Tom Brady and company.
“The Patriots have been pretty decimated with injuries on defense,” Gruden said. “They’ve had to play some unknowns there, and Tom Brady has had to make the adjustment to a whole new cast of receivers, but I think he’s done that by now. This is a New England team that gets into a lot of tight football games, and it’s still got (coach Bill) Belichick and Brady, and those two still usually find a way to win in the fourth quarter.”
Gruden is so quotable that I’m going to stop writing now and just let him talk. If you want a preview of what Gruden will say on the Monday night telecast about the Panthers, here you go.
On Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly: “I think he’s the best linebacker, hands down, in football. This kid is very unique. He can knock you down easily. He can find the ball. He can cover. I mean he makes a play against (Atlanta tight end) Tony Gonzalez, I had to go outside and shake my head and get some air. This double move that Tony Gonzalez runs against everybody, Kuechly just wheeled and intercepted it. There’s nothing the kid can’t do.”
On Carolina’s secondary: “You know how in Seattle they call the defense the ‘Legion of Boom’ – this is the ‘Legion of Whom.’ I have no idea who those guys in the secondary are, but they are really playing. That safety, Mike Mitchell, has really brought some pepper to the secondary. He’ll hit you. The whole defense seems to be having fun, and it plays harder than most teams I see.”
On quarterback Cam Newton: “He’s relying on his teammates more than he has in the past instead of trying to do it all himself. The most amazing thing about Newton to me is I don’t think people realize all the different fundamentals he has to execute in the course of the game. ... It’s an unbelievable array of plays this guy runs. It really is amazing. I’ve seen him develop and take care of the ball better. And still, when he breaks loose, man, he’s a load to bring down.”
On linebacker Thomas Davis: “He must be a super action hero with all the injuries that he’s had. He’s playing great.”
On the Panthers’ front four: “It’s hard to step up when you’re throwing against this massive inside group that Carolina has, much like when they had Kris Jenkins. When you can’t step up, you’re really vulnerable to those outside rushers, and they have as good a combination as there is in the league in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. And (defensive coordinator) Sean McDermott is doing a fabulous job orchestrating his nickel pass rush teams, the way he lines up Johnson and Hardy in different places.”
On how to measure defenses: “When we had a great defense at Tampa Bay, we always measured our defenses against the best quarterbacks. So these next several weeks, when you get a chance to see your defense against Brady and against Drew Brees both home and away – those are the tests.”
On the Monday night atmosphere: “I’m sure there is genuine excitement for Panther football, because this is the biggest game they’ve had in some time. I think the thing that’s most enticing is that this might be the last time you get to go see Tom Brady play if you live in Charlotte. That’s a surefire hall of famer right there. If I had a chance to come watch Luke Kuechly and this top-ranked defense against Tom Brady, I wouldn’t miss it.”