Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis ran into the locker room Sunday, leaving behind a rainy field and the Panthers’ messy but effective 37-23 victory over Tampa Bay.
As he passed general manager Dave Gettleman in the hallway, Davis hollered, “4-0, baby!”
And those are the only two numbers that really matter right now. The Panthers are an imperfect team, but they sport a perfect record through the first month of the NFL season.
It will stay that way at least one more week. Carolina has a bye next Sunday before traveling to old nemesis Seattle for an Oct. 18 game that will tell us a lot more about who this team really is.
For now, though, cornerback Josh Norman had this message for those who say the Panthers haven’t beaten anybody decent.
“We’re 4-0,” Norman said. “How many other teams are 4-0? So we’re going to continue to keep pounding, regardless of what they say. Because at the end of the day, they are not where we are.”
On a day where Tampa Bay outgained Carolina 411-244, the Panthers won because Norman and his defensive mates kept making Jameis Winston famous for all the wrong reasons.
Norman had two of Carolina’s four interceptions of the wildly inconsistent rookie Tampa Bay quarterback, returning one for a 46-yard touchdown.
The unquestioned defensive MVP of the Panthers through the first quarter of the season, Norman has a career-high four interceptions through only four games and has played an enormous role in three of Carolina’s wins.
Cam Newton, the team’s unquestioned offensive MVP through the first quarter of the season, would remark later: “I’ve said it numerous times – this will be Josh Norman’s best year.”
Newton has gone out of his way to be complimentary of Norman several times this season, which is laudable considering the two got into a highly publicized training camp fight. Both know how valuable the other is, however. Norman’s ascendance has been well-timed, for the Panthers lost a lot of big plays when Luke Kuechly went down with a concussion in the second quarter of Week 1.
Kuechly has now missed 14 of Carolina’s 16 quarters in this season, yet Carolina is 4-0. You would think No. 59 would be back for the Seattle game – and I don’t think the Panthers can win that one without him – but there’s no way to know yet.
Carolina has started 4-0 only twice before in its 21 seasons. In 2003, the Panthers got to 5-0 before losing and eventually appeared in their only Super Bowl.
We all know that the Panthers don’t disintegrate without Kuechly, however. They are doing just enough every week, and in this game they actually had a cushion of 10 to 14 points for most of the way as they caused Tampa Bay to commit five turnovers.
It helped that Carolina also got one of the flukiest touchdowns in team history, when tight end Ed Dickson caught a Jonathan Stewart fumble on the fly and rumbled 57 yards for a touchdown.
“We’ve got to work on him taking that car out of neutral when he’s running,” Newton teased later of Dickson’s run.
Ted Ginn Jr. caught two touchdown passes from Newton and threw a big block on Dickson’s run to help out on a third TD. “It’s not pretty, but we’re getting wins,” Ginn said. “Ain’t no game going to be just straight dominance, you know what I’m saying?”
Yes, we know what you’re saying. The Panthers aren’t “straight dominating” anybody. They take a more circular approach.
But they keep winning.
“Look, I’m happy,” said Norman, who probably made himself another few million in the offseason with his second pick-six of the season.
He spoke for the rest of the team there. The Panthers haven’t played a great game yet, and yet they are still 4-0.
Seattle looms. But for now, even though the frame has a few dents, the Panthers’ big picture looks bright.