Scott Fowler

With fourth win in a row, Carolina Panthers have become a team that’s going places

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Panthers vs. Buccaneers

Expanded coverage of Carolina’s game vs. Tampa Bay in London

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What’s happening now with the Carolina Panthers feels all the more enchanting because it’s so unexpected.

With a convincing 37-26 win Sunday over Tampa Bay in England, the Panthers grabbed their fourth victory in a row. They’ve gone from pretender to contender in the space of a month — all of it without quarterback Cam Newton and all of it with a team that looks balanced, relatively healthy and very happy entering its bye week.

“It felt like the London Panthers out there!” boomed Panthers safety Tre Boston. He meant the crowd, which seemed to be about 70 percent pro-Panthers in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium despite this technically being a home game for Tampa Bay.

The Panthers caused a startling seven turnovers — six from overwhelmed Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston — and also had seven sacks.

“Insane how many turnovers they had today,” Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen said of his defensive teammates. “Absurd.”

Even though Tampa Bay largely nullified Christian McCaffrey in the run game for the second time this season, everyone else picked up the slack. The Panthers’ first overseas trip in 25 seasons will be well-remembered, by both the players and the thousands of fans who made the journey.

Remember, it wasn’t that long ago we were talking about how long it had been since the Panthers had won a single game. They ended last season 1-7 and started this one 0-2. Newton was hobbling around and unable to run. He was a shadow of himself and 0-8 over his most recent eight starts, and he also wasn’t getting enough help.

Now it’s different. Crazy different.

It’s the Buccaneers who are in disarray this time after a Carolina-Tampa Bay game. As Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians growled about one of Jameis Winston’s turnovers Sunday: “He has a habit of trying to be Superman, and that’s been a problem in the past.”

On the other hand, the Panthers are flying, and they are doing it without the player whose nickname actually is “Superman.”

Allen has been wonderfully efficient at quarterback — he’s 5-0 as an NFL starter now in his career and, remarkably, still hasn’t thrown an interception in the league.

McCaffrey has scored nine times in six games in 2019, leading the NFL in TDs.

The offensive line has overcome several injuries to occasionally dominate and usually get the work done. And the defense has morphed into one of the NFL’s best, with a fearsome pass rush that has made it all look better.

What the Panthers now have is time on their hands — head coach Ron Rivera will give them a lot of this week off due to the bye week — and a suddenly big game looming.

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Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry (center) celebrates one of his two interceptions Sunday along with his teammates. The Panthers defeated Tampa Bay, 37-26, for their fourth straight win. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers are a team that is going places, and the next significant place they go is California. Carolina’s road game at San Francisco in two weeks now looks like something that could matter in regard to NFC playoff seeding.

Is it a coincidence that all of this has happened after Allen replaced Newton — who has missed all four wins with a Lisfranc foot injury?

That’s a complicated question. But it’s not all coincidence.

Allen has had some fumbling issues, but he’s otherwise been exceptional: accurate, quick, confident. He’s been far better in the past four games than Newton was in the first two.

It’s interesting that Panthers coach Ron Rivera — who had been saying matter-of-factly that Newton will return as the starter when he does come back — now is avoiding that question.

“I’m not going to worry, speculate on anything until I have to address that,” Rivera said. “Until then, we’re going to stay in the now…. As far as I’m concerned, we’re just not going to deal with the question until it’s time.”

The “now” is a nice place to be for the Panthers, as well as their fans. Some want to discard Newton like he’s an old cassette tape although, again, it’s more complicated than that. Allen is going to lose a game or two before too long. When Newton gets healthy — if Newton gets healthy — he’s still a very good player. He’s going to play again at some point.

But right now, the Panthers obviously don’t need him. They are doing this without him. They are winning in different ways, every week, but they are winning all the same.

“We’re a complete team all around,” Allen said.

Lately, it has sure looked that way.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.
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