So just how good can these Carolina Panthers be?
In the first half Sunday, they were pretty darn scary.
Then in the second half, for different reasons, they were also pretty darn scary.
What had been a 28-point Panthers lead at one point in the second quarter dwindled to seven. Then Carolina’s offense scored one final touchdown, order was restored and the Panthers won 42-28, over Tampa Bay.
The victory pushed the Panthers to 6-2 at the midpoint of the season with another game coming at them fast and furiously – at Pittsburgh on Thursday night. These Panthers are going to be in the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons unless they really mess things up.
But how far can they really go once they get there?
With Carolina, anything now appears possible — from a Super Bowl victory to a first-round playoff exit, depending on what Sunday it is.
A team that scores touchdowns on five straight possessions and sets a franchise scoring record for a game’s first 30 minutes — as Carolina did in its 35-point first half — has the sort of eye-popping offense you must have in today’s NFL to make it big.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had this many guys offensively who are that dynamic with the ball in their hands,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said later, marveling at all the youth and speed this offense boasts.
Then again, a team that gives up 21 consecutive points to Tampa Bay — making me Google “Biggest Blown Lead by the Panthers” early in the fourth quarter — isn’t close to ready to size itself for Super Bowl rings. (The answer was 21 points, by the way).
And as good as the Panthers have been, New Orleans (7-1) has been better and whipped the previously undefeated Los Angeles Rams on Sunday to stay in front of Carolina by a game in the NFC South.
Still, a 6-2 record is strong, and the past two weeks have been a welcome change for a Panthers team that has won a couple in a row by double-digit margins.
“When it’s clicking, it’s clicking,” said quarterback Cam Newton, who directed the Panthers to their 10th straight home win.
Newton had a Sunday so happily efficient that his postgame press conference included an imitation of offensive coordinator Norv Turner (“What’s up, baby?”) and a gentle poke at a Cam-esque hat that owner David Tepper wore on Saturday (“The quality was just kind of — for a person with his bank — he’s supposed to have the best of the best!”)
The Panthers offense gave kicker Graham Gano a very boring day – all he got to do was extra points and kickoffs. Every time the Panthers got anywhere near scoring a touchdown, they’d score one.
In the first half, during that remarkable five-TDs-in-a-row streak, every Panthers fan could dream big. Carolina ran both a reverse and a double reverse, and each went for more than 30 yards. Christian McCaffrey leaped over a defender entirely on another big play. “Pretty instinctual,” McCaffrey shrugged later.
The motto of the first half could have been expressed by Curtis Samuel, who said about his 33-yard TD run on a double reverse in which he actually ran more than 100 yards to score: “Let me go make something happen across the field and do what I do.”
So the Panthers did what they did. McCaffrey scored twice, Olsen made a leaping, one-handed catch for another TD and Alex Armah added a TD on a 1-yard run. It was 35-7 and Tampa Bay was floundering, with Panthers defensive end Mario Addison on his way to a three-sack day and safety Eric Reid having made an interception to set up Carolina’s first TD.
But then Carolina got lethargic and Tampa Bay caught fire. And before too long, it was 35-28. The Panthers had to mount one more TD drive to clinch the game, which they did when Newton hit Samuel for a 19-yard TD and the game’s final score.
It is worth noting that the second half of Carolina’s schedule is tougher than its first. The Panthers have already played five of their eight home games (going 5-0). And they see New Orleans twice in the season’s final three weeks — the same Saints team that beat Carolina three times in a row last season.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran guys who have got their eye on a Super Bowl,” Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “That’s our goal — to win the Super Bowl. We’re definitely trying to put ourselves in position to do that.”
The first half of an NFL season is mostly about that — putting yourself in good enough position that you don’t forfeit any possibilities.
Carolina has accomplished that. The team is scoring at a higher clip (27.5 points per game) than every other Carolina team but one (the 2015 Super Bowl squad). But I’m not quite sure about that defense, and I’m not at all sure Carolina could beat New Orleans in New Orleans in the playoffs if it came down to that.
Lots of work remains. But Sunday was intriguing. The Panthers have shown they are one of the NFL’s five best teams at midseason. And if they can play more like they did in the first half and less like they did in the third quarter, they have a shot at No. 1.