The Carolina Panthers have experienced an unforgettable regular season, one where they’ve flirted with perfection all year. But now it’s put up or shut up time as Carolina begins its quest for reaching the ultimate glory: hoisting the Lombardi trophy. Here are the five keys for the Panthers to fulfill the dream they’ve worked hard for since August.
Continue being “Party Crashers”
Despite advocating the league’s best 15-1 record in the regular season, Carolina for the majority of this year, have taken on the “us against the world” mentality. An approach that’s paid out dividends for the team’s confidence. Genuinely, it wasn’t too long ago when most national experts revealed skepticism regarding the Panthers, and how they weren’t fit to maintain the consistency to turn into the NFC’s top seed. As it stands, Carolina is the highest scoring offense in the league, averaging 32.1 points per game, which is more than Pittsburgh and Arizona. They also have the second-ranked rushing offense, evening out to less than 143 yards per game. Couple that with the sixth-ranked defense that has forced 35 takeaways, 24 interceptions, and 44 sacks.
The point is, the Panthers have been fueled off other’s ambiguity towards them. Furthermore, it hasn’t been easy for Carolina to stay healthy, as they’ve experienced setbacks on both sides of the ball. More so, Cam Newton has navigated this entire season without the dependence of his number one receiver, Kelvin Benjamin. In his place, former cast-off Ted Ginn Jr., whose career has been masked with vast under achievement, has seen his production instinctively skyrocket to career-highs. Ginn’s hauled in a team leading 44 catches for 739 yards and 10 TDs. A case like this occurs more times than not to every organization at some point, but rarely is it seen having a positive outcome.
Continuing this unfathomable phenomena will be critical for Carolina to pursue a toughness once the divisional rounds kicks off this weekend. And considering the opponent, Seattle, staying mistake-free and discovering a new manner of winning will surely be mandatory.
The secondary must come up big
It’s been a fantastic season for the defense, coming into the playoffs having only allowed 19.3 PPG (5th best in league). However, over the last few weeks Carolina’s secondary has been ravaged by injuries. Similar to what’s transpired on the offensive side, the Panthers have lost both starting defensive backs–Charles Tillman and Bene Benwikere to season-ending injuries. This has forced Carolina to dig deep into their depth chart, by issuing immediate playing time for 23-year old Tre Boston and 24-year old Lou Young.
Tillman’s absence significantly weakens the strength of the Panthers’ defense because Tillman not only provided a veteran presence, but has attained a knack for forcing fumbles. Tillman, during the regular season, had forced four fumbles out of the Carolina’s collective 18 this year. While Benwikere hasn’t been near of an extreme ballhawking presence as Tillman was. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott utilized Benwikere amidst a variety of options, whether it was during blitzing packages, spying schemes, or even involved in run support, Benwikere could cover anything and anyone that was needed.
If the matchup actually occurs in the NFC Championship Game. A true test of just how well the Panthers have patched up their secondary, will be how it handles the league’s most efficient offense in Arizona. Throughout the regular season the Cardinals’ driving storm of Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald have produced the highest YPG output than anyone in the league (408.3). In addition, Arizona exhibits the most first downs/game (23) and the best 3rd down conversion rate (47.7%).
Generating A Pass Rush
Being able to generate a staggering pass rush moderately goes hand-in-hand with the last key. By Carolina having to solely rely on fresh faces in the back-end of their secondary; it would be an added incentive to take the pressure off through consistent blitzes to the quarterback.
This has been an area of inconsistency for the Panthers since their Thanksgiving game against Dallas. Due to receiving scarce production out of its outside linebackers. It’s simply been the Kawann Short show for Carolina lately. The second year defensive tackle has been awarded the defensive player of the month for the second time this season. His numbers go a long way for backing up his worthy accolades, with a combined 124 tackles and 11.0 sacks.
Considering how quickly Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson gets the ball out, it will be difficult for Carolina’s front-four to exert enough pressure to bring him down. This means Kawann Short needs help from fellow DT Mario Addison (6.0 sacks) and outside linebacker Thomas Davis (5.5 sacks). Creating havoc in the opponents backfields will also be essential. Aside from attacking quarterbacks, it’s necessary in neutralizing the ground game from teams such as Seattle or Arizona, which they depend on heavily to succeed. Excelling in an area like this can make Carolina’s life much easier.
There’s a vast difference between football in the regular season and in the playoffs. For one thing, every play in the playoffs is magnified by cause of it potentially being the last game of your season. In order for the Panthers to advance deep into the postseason, they must simply play smart. This means cutting down on turnovers, and finishing tackles.
Though it’ll appear as straight-forward examples. Several reasons why Carolina barely missed an opportunity of staying unbeaten was the great deal of turnovers they committed. In their lone loss at Atlanta, Carolina coughed up the ball five times; four coming from quarterback Cam Newton, who threw three picks and fumbled once. Mistakes, including defining drops that were evident in the regular season won’t fly when Carolina faces outstanding defenses, like Seattle.
Another thing that will be crucial for Carolina’s offensive flow, will be how their offensive line protects Cam Newton. Newton was the tenth most sacked quarterback in the NFL this year (33 times during the regular season). In large part, by Newton being sacked an ample amounts of time, has resulted in strong field position for the opposition. No doubt is Newton a freak athlete, and from what’s transpired this year, he’s the biggest bullet incased within the Panther’s arsenal. In the playoffs, sometimes you’re as good as your defense. And considering how banged up and worn down Carolina’s defense has been of late. Perhaps taking lesser gambles could bolster their performance.
Sticking with the Running Game
There’s nothing else more to say, the forefront of the Panthers’ success is built from its defense and running game. Regardless of how things unfold through the air, Carolina needs to stay committed with what’s got them here. The Panthers are second in the league in terms of rushing yards (averaging 142.2 per game).
The added week of rest should be able to help heal Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert’s lingering bruises that were sustained during stretches this season. Stewart, assuming his starting role will be intact once Sunday hits, is just eleven yards shy of eclipsing the 1,000 yards-mark for the season. If completed, this would be Stewart’s third year where he’s rushed for 1,000.
Add the emergence of returning tail back Cameron-Artis-Payne, whose shown major versatility and all of a sudden this could very well end up being Carolina’s X-Factor on long 2nd and 3rd down attempts. Slotting Artis-Payne in the slot to convert screen passes into long gains can develop into another wrinkle for Panthers’ offensive coordinator Mike Shula to utilize. Payne draws similar comparisons to both Stewart and Newton, as his quickness provides upside at all positions. The fact of the matter is that a lot of defenses haven’t witnessed the high-level of depth that Carolina upholds at one position. This provides the Panthers’ a distinct edge as the NFC playoffs run through Charlotte.