So is the Carolina Panthers' impressive 5-1 streak to finish the 2012 season a sign of future greatness, or is it just a bunch of fool's gold?
With as unpredictable as the Panthers have been over the last two years, who knows?
Carolina's strong finish gives the Panthers something in common with several of the NFL's elite teams. Nine teams including Carolina won at least four of their final five games. Of these nine teams, Carolina was the only one to not make the playoffs.
But just because the Panthers finished the season like a playoff contender does not necessarily mean the momentum will continue into next year. After all, Carolina finished last year on a 4-2 run but came out flat in 2012 and started the season 2-8.
Why a 5-1 Finish Means a Golden Future
Carolina's momentum to end 2012 could easily bleed over into next year.
The Panthers' defense has a core of solid young players, including rookies Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, and Frank Alexander.
Kuechly led the NFL with 165 tackles and as I have previously written, Kuechly makes a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Corner back Josh Norman tied for third on the team in both tackles (73) and passes defended (7). Defensive lineman Frank Alexander recorded 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks in his first NFL season.
Meanwhile, defensive ends Charles Johnson (12.5 sacks) and Greg Hardy (11.0 sacks) continue to improve while new addition defensive lineman Dwan Edwards (52 tackles, 6.0 sacks) integrated himself nicely into the defensive unit.
A young, improving Carolina defense could take a big step forward in 2013.
Why a 5-1 Finish is Fool's Gold
But the Panthers have been here before.
Carolina finished the 2011 season on a solid 4-2 streak and entered 2012 with playoff expectations as a "breakout contender", but rather than building on last year's momentum they stumbled to a 2-8 start this season.
The Panthers are experiencing organizational issues with coach Ron Rivera not knowing if he is going to be fired. Rivera will either be fired sometime soon or enter next year on the hot seat, neither of which is ideal for starting 2013 on a positive note.
Franchise quarterback Cam Newton failed to take a noticeable step forward in his second NFL season, improving his QB rating from 84.5 last year to 86.2 this year while his completion percentage, passing yards, and touchdowns all decreased in 2012.
Carolina's special teams continue to be atrocious. According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers had the NFL's worst special teams in 2011. In 2012 their special teams ranked 29th of 32 teams.
With coaching turmoil, an occasionally perplexing Cam Newton, and horrendous special teams, the 2013 Panthers could continue in their .500-type mediocrity.
But then again, a young, improving defense could be key in keeping the Panthers' hot streak going into next season.
Only time will tell.
Andrew Sweat covers the NFC South. Visit Andrew's archive or check out these articles: