Carolina Panthers

What can you surmise from 5-3 start? That Panthers are a team with a real chance

The Carolina Panthers won ugly again Sunday, which is greatly preferable to losing ugly. Their 17-3 road victory over Tampa Bay was predicated on great defense and OK offense, and it puts them at 5-3 at the midpoint of the NFL season.

A record of 5-3 is kind of hard to get a handle on. It’s not unbelievable. It’s not terrible. As Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of what 5-3 means: “I think it’s good enough, but there’s a problem about being good enough. Sometimes good enough is not good enough.”

My translation: The Panthers are moving along at a pace that will get them into the playoffs if they continue. A 10-6 record at season’s end should do that, and that’s just 5-3 doubled.

But playing at this level won’t put them into the Super Bowl. They’ve got some things to improve on to get there.

Defensively on Sunday, the Panthers had the look of a team that could go deep in the playoffs. Tampa Bay came into the game ranked No. 2 in total offense in the NFL and No. 1 in passing offense, and the Panthers outfoxed Jameis Winston and company beautifully. It was the fourth time in eight games Carolina has not allowed a defensive touchdown. The Panthers greatly benefited from the return of linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Kurt Coleman (each of whom had a takeaway).

On offense, the Panthers struggled a number of times but did score their first two touchdowns since Oct. 12. This led to quarterback Cam Newton trying to make sure to stay positive in his postgame press conference, even though he certainly wanted more points.

“It’s all right,” Newton said of having a 5-3 record. “I’m not going to play Debbie Downer. I’m not going to allow anyone to play Debbie Downer for us. At the end of the day, a lot of teams wish they were 5-3.”

Just one play over 20 yards

Tampa Bay (2-5) certainly would be one of those teams. The Bucs were the only team to lose in the NFC South on Sunday, however. New Orleans (5-2) has won five straight after beating Chicago. Atlanta (4-3) edged the New York Jets. Carolina – which is 4-1 on the road – sits sandwiched between the two of them, a half-game out of first place. The Panthers play two straight home games now, against Atlanta and Miami, and don’t hit the road again until after Thanksgiving.

The best thing right now about the Panthers is that defense, which has done its part in nearly every game this season. The defense has a handful of legitimate stars and is about as healthy as you could dream it would be at this point in the season. Kuechly is a question mark, of course, because of his three trips to the concussion protocol in the past three years. But when he’s playing, Carolina is a top-5 defense.

The offense is nowhere near that good yet. Newton threw for only 154 yards Sunday and again had to be Carolina’s leading rusher, with 44 more yards.

The return of tight end Greg Olsen in late November should help. Carolina tried hard to stretch the field Sunday, with Newton throwing five deep balls and converting on the last – a 25-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin boxed out a Bucs defensive back beautifully on the play, which gave Carolina a two-TD lead that would hold up.

That play, however, was Carolina’s only offensive play of more than 20 yards all day. Until and unless the Panthers become more explosive, they are destined for offensive mediocrity in 2017.

But there’s a chance

If Curtis Samuel ever becomes Ted Ginn, though. ... And if the welcome addition of Cameron Artis-Payne lights a spark in the running game. ... And if the offensive line holds up as well as it did Sunday, when Newton was not sacked even once. ... Then it all just might work out.

At 5-3, see, there are loads of possibility.

It’s a whole lot better than 4-4 and riding a three-game losing streak, which is what it would have been if Carolina had lost to Tampa Bay.

It’s a whole lot better than 3-5, which the Panthers were at this time last year.

Yeah, the Panthers record current record could be 6-2 or 7-1 under the best of circumstances. But Buffalo also could have beaten the Panthers had that guy not dropped a pass inside the 5. The New England and Detroit wins were very close, too.

The Panthers are right about where they deserve to be as we hit the halfway point – a couple of games over .500.

They’ve got a real chance. And if you’re a Panthers fan, that’s really what you want.

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