A day after Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin went down with a season-ending knee injury in training camp, a team official stood on the sideline at Wofford and conceded the Panthers’ offense might face some rough sledding this season.
A 20-9 victory at Jacksonville in Week 1 did nothing to quell those concerns. The Panthers managed one offensive touchdown and didn’t have a wide receiver finish with more than 54 receiving yards.
But the offense started to gather momentum and the Panthers kept winning, even while Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly missed three games with a concussion.
Fast forward to Week 14, when Carolina’s 38-0 shutout of Atlanta was the fifth time in six games the undefeated Panthers had scored 33 points or more. Carolina (13-0) enters Sunday’s game against the Giants (6-7) as the league’s No. 1 scoring offense (31.6 ppg).
The Panthers arrived in north Jersey three victories away from becoming the third team in the Super Bowl era to finish with a perfect regular season.
The Observer looks at 16 reasons the Panthers are within reach of 16-0 – and three reasons why they might not get there.
1. Cam Newton
You can’t start a list like this with anyone other than Newton, who in his fifth season has gone from a good player to the leading MVP candidate. Newton willed the Panthers to a victory in New Orleans two weeks ago when the Panthers tried to give the game away. He has always been the toughest quarterback in the league to bring down. Now he’s among the toughest to defend through the air as well.
2. The no-huddle offense
Newton’s development spiked late last season when offensive coordinator Mike Shula implemented more no-huddle plays. This wasn’t your father’s hurry-up offense. Quite the opposite: Shula wanted to give Newton more time at the line to survey the defense and audible as needed. It worked.
3. Pro Bowl leaps
Josh Norman and Kawann Short were clearly two young defenders on the rise. But no one could have predicted they both would become Pro Bowl-caliber players this season, or in Norman’s case a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. They made an already good defense great.
4. Ryan Kalil’s smarts
This is not to minimize the playing ability of the four-time Pro Bowler. Kalil remains one of the league’s best centers. But his ability to identify fronts is invaluable. Against the Cowboys, Kalil found where Greg Hardy was lined up before every play, and set the blocking scheme and protections accordingly.
5. Weak cross-divisional schedules
The Panthers had a first-place schedule based on last year’s finish. But they caught a break getting paired with the NFC East and AFC South, neither of which has a team with a winning record. Still, Carolina took take care of business by going 7-0 in those games entering Sunday’s game against the Giants.
6. Ted Ginn’s speed
Yes, he’s prone to drop touchdown passes. But Ginn also can still run by people even when they know what’s coming. Without his speed and game-breaking abilities, the offense would be more of the slog-it-out variety.
7. Greg Olsen’s hands
The Pro Bowl tight end has Newton’s complete trust, which took on added importance when Benjamin went down. Olsen survived an injury scare against Atlanta and is 31 yards shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. He’s also Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded TE in the passing game.
8. Thomas Davis’ sacks
Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has been getting Thomas Davis more involved in the blitz packages, and for good reason: Davis is getting to the quarterback. Davis’ 5 1/2 sacks are a career high and his 12 pressures are fourth-most on the team.
9. Luke Kuechly’s anticipation
During practice Friday, scout-team quarterback Derek Anderson checked to a different protection at the line. Kuechly countered by switching the defense. Panthers coach Ron Rivera was asked how the play turned out. “In the defense’s favor,” he said. When Kuechly’s on the field, that’s usually the case. He is the Panthers’ leading tackler (again) despite missing 3.5 games.
10. Jerricho Clutchery
All Jerricho Cotchery does is make first-down catches. Not a blazing runner nor flashy, nearly 70 percent of his catches have gone for a first down or a touchdown.
11. Pulling guards
Second-year guards Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell don’t get a lot of recognition. They are content to throw down chicken wings during their weekly Thursday night dinner tradition and knock down linebackers and defensive backs when they’re blocking in space. Two underrated players.
12. The safety net
When the Panthers signed Kurt Coleman during the offseason, the popular narrative was he would provide depth in the secondary and improve special teams. McDermott, who was with Coleman in Philly, knew better and inserted him as the starting free safety from the first day of camp. All Coleman has done is make 69 tackles (most among Panthers not named Kuechly or Davis) and intercept seven passes, the second-highest total in the league.
13. No bye week problems
During Rivera’s first four seasons, the Panthers were 0-5 after a bye (or a week off in the playoffs), having been outscored 125-46 in such games. But after an early bye this season, the Panthers went to Seattle and pulled off their most important victory of the season. They also held on against New Orleans following a “mini-bye” after the Thanksgiving game at Dallas. This bodes well for Carolina in its divisional-round game in Charlotte.
14. Last season’s late run
Between all the NFC South jokes last year and the off-field tumult for the Panthers at the time (Newton’s wreck, Rivera’s house fire), some might have missed the significance of the four-game winning streak that sent the Panthers into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record. Then they beat Arizona in the wild-card round. This team learned to win last December. Seventeen regular-season games later, the beat goes on.
15. Locker room harmony
It’s a chicken-and-egg question: Do the Panthers have good chemistry because they’re winning, or are they winning because they have good chemistry? Probably a little of both. But defensive end Jared Allen, who has played for four clubs in 12 seasons, says he has never been around a group of guys who embodied the team concept better than the Panthers.
16. Staff continuity
When former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left to become the Browns’ coach after the 2012 season, Rivera interviewed outside candidates before promoting Shula in large part because he didn’t want Newton learning a new system. Rivera’s staff has been largely intact since he fired three assistants before the ’13 season. That consistency has been key.
Three reasons the Panthers might fall short of perfection
The Panthers dodged a bullet with Olsen, who is expected to play in his 140th consecutive game Sunday after getting a knee scare against the Falcons. But they’ll be missing running back Jonathan Stewart for the first time this season, and there’s no guarantee he’ll play next week against the Falcons.
2. Giants as giant-slayers
New York is no stranger to taking down undefeated teams, having ended Denver’s perfect season in Week 15 in 1998 and spoiling the unbeaten Patriots’ Super Bowl party during the ’07 season. Those were different years and different circumstances. But of the Panthers’ remaining three games, this one looks like the toughest. Tom Coughlin and Eli Manning have been in this situation before.
3. Rest for the starters
The Panthers can clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory Sunday and an Arizona loss at Philadelphia. Then it gets interesting for Rivera, who has indicated he would play his starters although not necessarily the entire game. If the Panthers beat the Giants, they’ll face an Atlanta team in Week 16 that looks to have gone in the tank. And there will be about 30,000 Panthers fans in the Georgia Dome. Then it’s Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale, when Anderson and other backups might be playing the second half with the 16-0 record on the line.