Panthers in discussion of league's elite

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Suddenly, the debate about the best team in football doesn't begin in Manhattan and end in the swamps of Jersey.

On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers threw their name into the hat of discussion with a 30-10 thumping of Denver. Even when the Tennessee Titans were undefeated, the Super Bowl champion New York Giants were deemed to be the league's best following one dominating effort after another.

But as the days count down to the official start of winter, the Giants (11-3) have cooled and the Panthers (11-3) have become an attractive option to discuss, the way many retiring New Yorkers point their cars to North Carolina in winter these days.

Of course, folks in Pittsburgh and Tennessee might take exception. But as impressive as the Steelers have or as consistent the Titans have been, it's hard to get enthralled with teams that play offense as if this was still the coal-mining era of the NFL.

In the span of seven days, the Panthers demolished Tampa Bay and the Broncos with a pair of impressive home victories. Moreover, Carolina won in decidedly different ways, mowing down the Buccaneers with the running game and then throwing its way past Denver's all-out defense against the run.

Now, Carolina travels to New York for a showdown with the Giants that will determine the NFC's top seed and possibly the hosts the NFC championship game.

Carolina wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad tried to downplay the idea of how much the game means, but the sly grin of anticipation was on his face.

"It's just 60 minutes of football, that's all," Muhammad said. "All that stuff about who's the best team in the league or the NFC or whatever, that's for you guys in the media to have fun with. For us, it's just a December game."

Muhammad has a point in that the Panthers have yet to sew up the NFC South, in which they have a two-game lead over the Falcons and Buccaneers.

"We can't get all caught up in what this could mean for the NFC championship or whatever because that ignores all the other teams and we've got to take care of our business first," Panthers left guard Travelle Wharton said. "It's exciting and it's nice that we get to play in a game everybody is paying attention to, but it doesn't mean anything.

"Last year, everybody was talking about how Dallas was so great and how they were the No. 1 seed, but then you saw what happened when the Giants went in there."

To Wharton's point, the NFL playoff picture couldn't be much more balanced. Just take this snapshot of the AFC: Tennessee beat Indianapolis handily earlier this season, then Indy won in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh has swept Baltimore, which in turn hammered Houston earlier this season. On Sunday, Houston beat Tennessee.

The NFC isn't much different, but having the No. 1 seed is still better than not having it, so next Sunday becomes vital.

"That's sweet to be in a big game like that," said Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams.

Between Williams, fellow back Jonathan Stewart, wide receiver Steve Smith and quarterback Jake Delhomme, the Panthers have the ability to adjust what they have to do in a given game. Against Tampa Bay it was pound away with the running game to the tune of 299 yards, both Williams and Stewart topping the 100-yard mark.

On Sunday, Denver wasn't going to let the Panthers have that type of day. The Broncos came out in an unconventional four-linebacker defense featuring safety Josh Barrett playing so deep that he didn't even join the defensive huddle on most downs.

"You could see from the first play what they were trying to do to us," Williams said.

So the Panthers took it to the air, throwing on five of six plays on their opening possession – finishing with a 15-yard touchdown on a receiver screen (great blocking by Muhammad sprung Smith for the score). By the end of the day, Smith had nine catches for 165 yards.

"We're kind of at the point where the other team has to pick who they want to cover," said Williams, who broke the game open with a 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. It was smooth sailing from there for the Panthers, who also got a touchdown run from Stewart (Williams and Stewart have 23 rushing touchdowns combined this season).

That combination of skill players, along with a healthy offensive line and overall defense, puts the Panthers in the position all teams want to be at this point: hot and healthy.

By contrast, the Giants aren't hot or healthy. They struggled on Sunday night at Dallas after getting dominated by Philadelphia the previous week. The loss of both wide receiver Plaxico Burress, whose career with the Giants is all but over, and running back Brandon Jacobs (he missed the Dallas game with a knee injury) has left the Giants without any overwhelming offensive weapon for quarterback Eli Manning.

As for the rest of the NFC, Arizona looked like a fraud in losing to Minnesota on Sunday. The Vikings look good, but you have to wonder about Tarvaris Jackson at quarterback (four touchdown passes or not). Of Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Dallas and Philadelphia, only two will survive at this point.

That leaves Carolina looking like a sound option with two weeks left.

Let the debate rage.