The Carolina Panthers have allowed 10, 15, 13, 10 and 9 points in five straight victories. We might be looking at the hottest defense in the NFL, right up there with the Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs as the best groups going.
Ron Rivera has gone from the hot seat to a Coach of the Year candidate. The Panthers' ugly 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers included many things you do not want out of a contender: a missed field goal, dropped passes, missed offensive opportunities and, just to make things interesting, a few heart-stopping, late-game fumbles.
But it was that defense, that smothering, steamrolling unit, that carried the team to a victory it had to have.To prove itself against the naysayers who said they hadn't played anyone? Sure. But more so to prove to themselves they can win in a playoff-like atmosphere against a team that has been there.
The Panthers have not. They have not tasted the postseason since the Jake Delhomme Birthday Meltdown Game in early 2009, and they never have been this competitive and this destructive defensively under Rivera.
We're talking about a defense ranked in the top 10 in rushing, passing, total defense and scoring. We're talking about a group that allowed the 49ers and Colin Kaepernick — if you count in the six sacks and the yardage marked off for them — a net 46 yards passing. On 28 dropbacks.
Frank Gore and the run game made hay early, and the 49ers had three first-half scoring drives. But the Panthers tightened the closer the Niners got to their end zone, and the allowed a mere 151 yards for the game — and only 49 after halftime. The Panthers allowed one drive longer than 17 yards and no play longer than 17 yards.
When was the last time you saw the 49ers so thoroughly whipped at the line of scrimmage? Not even the Indianapolis Colts did that when they came in and won by 20 at Candlestick.
The Panthers have the best front four in football, an ace middle linebacker and a secondary of outcasts who have come together in stunning fashion. That might remain a questionable unit for some, but Mike Mitchell, Quentin Mikell and Drayton Florence have come off the street to give this group an identity: they'll reroute you, use every inch of the fave-yard chuck zone and, if you get the ball thrown your way, better hope your chin strap is buckled.
This formula, along with a developing run game, the calm and collected Cam Newton (who rallied from a tough start and several drops to turn in another pro's pro game) and just enough playmakers make this a legit contender. Throw in some quality special teams, and we're talking about a sleeper Super Bowl club.
The NFC has been turned on its head a bit, and don't be surprised if the Panthers are in this thing until the end.
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