SAN JOSE, Calif. – America loves a greatest-ever debate. Especially around the time of major championships, current teams are stacked up against history, often favorably. It's almost a default discussion when rings are on the line.
Shouldn't the Carolina Panthers be triggering this kind of talk?
The point is moot if Carolina doesn't beat the Denver Broncos on Sunday in Super Bowl 50, but this is a 17-1 team that barely lost to a division rival on the road in its penultimate regular-season game. Only six other teams have ever won 15 games in a regular season since the 1978 schedule expansion. Take it back a little further and the Panthers have won 22 of their last 24 total games dating back to December of 2014. That's a torrid stretch that would be a bigger deal if it happened in New England or Dallas or Green Bay (or Los Angeles).
"Best Team Ever" status usually goes to the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 1985 Chicago Bears or the 1984 San Francisco 49ers, all one-loss or fewer Super Bowl teams. If the Panthers win Sunday – especially if they win decidedly – why not them?
There are several reasons for the relative apathy about this team. The first is the tried and true, "They haven't beaten anybody" argument. Carolina comes from a weak division and won only seven regular-season games in the 2014 season, so its schedule was relatively light in 2015.
The flaw with that line of reasoning is these Panthers beat Seattle on the road and then dropped 31 points on the Seahawks in the divisional round, followed by 49 points against the Arizona Cardinals in the conference title game. The regular season included a 37-point performance against Green Bay, as well. The only thing missing is a signature victory against the AFC champs, and they'll get that chance Sunday.
The other arguments are more nebulous. Greatest-ever status usually goes to teams with legendary players: Joe Montana, Walter Payton, the Steel Curtain, even Tom Brady with his 18-1 Patriots that fell largely on an improbable David Tyree catch.
The Panthers are too young to have anyone legendary. Cam Newton is 26 and his career hit an MVP level only this season. Luke Kuechly is 24. Kawann Short, Star Lotulelei and Josh Norman were all relatively anonymous a year ago. Carolina's wide receivers are not stars, and even top pass-catching threat Greg Olsen was acquired from the Bears in a trade for a third-round pick. We don't know yet how good this group will one day be. When Montana was Newton's age, he had completed only one of his great seasons.
Still, for comparison's sake, the Panthers scored 500 points this past season, only 26 shy of the famous "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams team from 1999. Those '84 Niners scored 475.
It's hard for anyone to make an argument that the Panthers' defense stacks up against the 1985 Bears. That incredible group (which included Ron Rivera) allowed only 198 points all season, compared to 308 for these Panthers. But if you're going to make the full comparison, look at the Bears' division: the Packers (8-8), Vikings (7-9), Lions (7-9) and Bucs (2-14) were all mediocre or worse. Only one other team in the NFC scored more than 400 points that season. One of the three AFC teams to score 400 that season, the Dolphins, beat the Bears by two touchdowns. Chicago didn't play the other two (Cincinnati and San Diego).
But that Bears defense, as we all know, was renowned for more than just statistics. Buddy Ryan rolled out his vaunted 46 scheme that no one could handle. Chicago's lethal combination was one of talent and system.
Perhaps we will one day say similar things about these Panthers on offense. Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula have come up with an amalgam of the best college design and an effective pro style attack. Maybe it's not revolutionary like the 46, but it's still difficult to figure out. If the Broncos can't stop the Panthers either, the case for Carolina grows stronger.
None of this is to say the Panthers are the greatest team of all time. It won't be ironclad to say that even if they win 46-10 on Sunday like the Bears did against the Patriots in their Super Bowl. But there has been hardly a whisper about their potential place in history, and that's curious for a team that has won all of its games except one. Instead, a lot of the attention has gone to Newton's persona and the gloaming of Peyton Manning's amazing career. Even on championship Sunday, Brady v. Manning took a huge portion of the nation's attention, and on Monday at Opening Night, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was asked as much or more about beating Brady as he was about beating Cam Newton. This is still the Brady and Manning era. The Newton era isn't even yet on the level of the Russell Wilson era.
The final test of a rare one-loss team is coming in a few days. If the Panthers pass, it's time again to have the greatest-ever debate. And Carolina will deserve to be included.