The Carolina Panthers are a couple early-season plays away from being an obvious choice as one of the top few teams in the NFL.
In Week 1, DeAngelo Williams fumbled inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes with the Panthers trailing Seattle 12-7. Carolina never got the ball back. In Week 2, the Bills drove 80 yards for a last-second game-winning touchdown, after Panthers coach Ron Rivera decided to kick a field goal rather than go for it on fourth and 1 in the final two minutes.
A play here or there in the first two weeks, the Panthers might be 8-1 and an undisputed member of the Super Bowl contenders club. At 6-3? It seems a little tougher to gauge.
The Panthers are still chasing a very good Saints team in the NFC South, and they probably need to win the division to make a long playoff run. And they probably need to sweep New Orleans to win the division.
But there are reasons to believe. The Panthers defense is as good as any in football. Carolina held San Francisco to 45 second-half yards, and just 4 yards in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Cam Newton has greatness in him. And any team that can go into San Francisco and beat a hot 49ers team has to get a long look.
Besides, if Carolina isn't on the list of teams that can win the Super Bowl, we're dealing with a very, very short list of teams, as you'll see. (I think No. 1 through 3 on this week's rankings are obvious contenders, No. 4 through 8 are in the "under the right circumstances, absolutely" category, and No. 9 and 10 do just enough that you can't cross them off. And that's it. We're not accepting any applications from No. 11 on down.)
Carolina deserves to be on any list of Super Bowl contenders for now, something even the most optimistic preseason prognosis of them couldn't have envisioned. Now we'll see if they can keep that status by beating New England next Monday.
Here are this week's power rankings:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8, Last week: 32)
Well, they were out of this spot for about 32 hours or so.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-8, LW: 31)
No player, coach or anyone associated with a team wants the scarlet letter of 0-16 for the rest of their careers. Big difference between zero wins and one.
30. Minnesota Vikings (2-7, LW: 30)
It would be entertaining if Christian Ponder played just well enough the rest of the season to get the Vikings front office talking themselves into another season of him at quarterback.
29. Atlanta Falcons (2-7, LW: 27)
Last season, Atlanta beat Seattle in a playoff game. Sunday, they were outgained 490-226 by Seattle in a 33-10 home loss. Julio Jones' injury doesn't make that big of a difference.
28. Houston Texans (2-7, LW: 25)
Again, keep in mind that both their victories were semi-miraculous. There's way too much talent there to be this bad.
27. New York Giants (3-6, LW: 29)
They could get to 6-6. Then after that they play at San Diego, vs. Seattle and at Detroit. Remember that when the "Giants are alive!" stories keep popping up.
26. Washington Redskins (3-6, LW: 23)
Any hopes of winning the putrid NFC East were realistically dashed last Thursday. When you can't beat Minnesota, it's over.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-6, LW: 26)
The Ben Roethlisberger trade rumors make no sense for anyone, really. Are the Steelers better off without him? And what team would benefit that much from sending valuable picks for a quarterback who will be 32 in March with a lot of miles on his body?
24. Oakland Raiders (3-6, LW: 24)
The Giants tried giving them a win, and they wouldn't take it. They've now lost 12 straight games on the East Coast.
23. Buffalo Bills (3-7, LW: 20)
Thought they'd play better than that at Pittsburgh. The rest of the season has to be about good performances to lay a foundation for 2014 and beyond.
22. St. Louis Rams (4-6, LW: 28)
The next step is getting Tavon Austin the ball more. He had three offensive touches and two went for long scores. But we can't expect them to figure out this "use Tavon Austin" thing all at once.
21. Tennessee Titans (4-5, LW: 17)
Went from being excited about this team's second-half prospects to being totally out on the Titans in about three hours Sunday. What a horrible afternoon against Jacksonville.
20. Miami Dolphins (4-5, LW: 15)
With everything going on with this team, their 4-5 record seems more like 1-8. They're very much in the AFC playoff race, but does it feel like that's the case?
19. Baltimore Ravens (4-5, LW: 22)
Good win over the Bengals even though they made it harder than it needed to be. I don't like them yet, but it's not like the AFC's playoff spots are locked up.
18. Cleveland Browns (4-5, LW: 18)
They play at Cincinnati on Sunday. Win that, and Browns fans should legitimately get excited about their chances of winning the AFC North.
17. Green Bay Packers (5-4, LW: 10)
New Orleans, Denver, New England, Cincinnati, Carolina, Indianapolis ... they all have looked at the Packers in the last week or so and thought, "We're one hit away from that being us."
16. Philadelphia Eagles (5-5, LW: 21)
I don't think this is a roster with .500 talent. Chip Kelly must be doing something right.
15. Dallas Cowboys (5-5, LW: 13)
The 2012 Saints gave up the most yards in NFL history. They allowed 440.1 per game. The 2013 Cowboys are allowing 439.8 yards per game.
14. Arizona Cardinals (5-4, LW: 19)
I don't really know how it happened, but they're right in the mix. They've beaten the Lions and Panthers. I'm not sure I get it, but it's real.
13. San Diego Chargers (4-5, LW: 14)
We can mark San Diego at Miami this week as an elimination game. The loser isn't going to be playing in January.
12. New York Jets (5-4, LW: 16)
Look at the 4-5 teams in the AFC. Look at the teams below them. I don't love the Jets but they're the No. 6 seed now, and can anyone beat them?
11. Chicago Bears (5-4, LW: 12)
We'll never know if they would have beat the Lions if Josh McCown was sent in earlier. But it's something that'll be really interesting to look back on after Week 17.
10. Detroit Lions (6-3, LW: 11)
They look better every week. But can't you just see a really dumb roughing the passer penalty happening to them at exactly the wrong time in January?
9. Cincinnati Bengals (6-4, LW: 8)
Losing twice in overtime on the road isn't all that bad, although they were lucky to even get to overtime against the Ravens. Feel free to panic if they lose to the Browns this week.
8. San Francisco 49ers (6-3, LW: 5)
Seems like a big drop for a one-point home loss, but No. 6 and 7 on the list already won at San Francisco this year.
7. Indianapolis Colts (6-3, LW: 1)
Inconsistent and impossible to get a read on. Good enough to beat the 49ers by 20 on the road and yet lose by 30 to the Rams at home. Figure that one out.
6. Carolina Panthers (6-3, LW: 9)
A really bad record in close games is due to some bad luck. See the Panthers recovering both of their fumbles in the final two minutes on Sunday. They finally caught a couple breaks.
5. New England Patriots (7-2, LW: 7)
Interesting to see if Tom Brady can keep it rolling this week against that fantastic Panthers defense. Finally, a great Monday night matchup.
4. Kansas City Chiefs (9-0, LW: 6)
Before you tweet and email, also holler at Las Vegas oddsmakers, who made the Broncos eight-point favorites this week. And remember their livelihood depends on that kind of thing.
3. New Orleans Saints (7-2, LW: 4)
At the Superdome, they're No. 1 on the list. Anywhere else, not so much. That's what makes the race for the No. 1 seed in the NFC so interesting.
2. Seattle Seahawks (9-1, LW: 3)
Whatever happened against St. Louis and Tampa Bay might have just been a weird fluke ... and they won both games. They looked strong in the rout at Atlanta. Carry on.
1. Denver Broncos (8-1, LW: 2)
That was a complete game against a very good team at San Diego on Sunday. Peyton Manning's health willing, they once again look like the AFC favorite, even if the offensive line makes you wonder.
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