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Sorting the Sunday Pile: Panthers emerge as Super Bowl contender

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

The Panthers defense is terrorizing opponents.
That was a good play. (USATSI)

The Panthers' defensive turnaround over the last two years is, frankly, remarkable. And it's got Carolina playing the role of Super Bowl contender as we head into the stretch run of 2013.

You can't overstate how important their win over the 49ers -- a physical, defensive, sometimes ugly 10-9 victory -- was for that organization. Teams don't roll out to San Francisco and punch the 49ers in the mouth on their home turf. You don't smack Jim Harbaugh around at home. Carolina just did.

"The Carolina Panthers needed this type of win," quarterback Cam Newton said afterward.

Beating San Francisco felt like more than just a notch in the win column. It was validation of the Panthers play during a four-game win streak against lesser opposition. It was Carolina winning a close game, one of Ron Rivera's biggest issues in his three years there. It was proof Carolina can hang with anyone in the NFC, the very definition of a Super Bowl contender.

And it was a defensive victory, too. Point to Newton's low statistical output all you want, but having Luke Kuechly and crew there to carry the team when Cam's off is critical.

"I'm glad the game was on (the defense's) shoulders," Kuechly said. "One of the biggest wins I've ever had."

Two weeks ago fans would've signed off in a heartbeat on the Panthers going 2-1 on a three-game stretch against the Falcons, 49ers and Patriots. They're playing with house money now, though, having won two of those games and staring at an eight-day break before welcoming New England into Charlotte on Monday Night Football.

After that they've got the Dolphins, Buccaneers, Jets and Falcons in addition to two matchups against the division-leading Saints. Is it possible they limp in at 3-4? Sure. But that looks like a worst case and would still put them in the hunt for a wild-card spot at 9-7.

More likely is that this team gets better. The last two seasons Carolina's closed out impressively, winning five of their last six in 2012 and four of their last six in 2011.

Over their last 16 games, Carolina's given up more than 30 points just once (in last year's season finale to the Saints). In the Panthers last nine games they've only given up more than 20 points twice, and have held opponents under 14 points six times.

They're straight rolling on defense and it's a far cry from where they were when Rivera came aboard. In 2011 the Panthers had arguably the worst defense in the NFL. First-round picks Luke Kuechly (2012) and Star Lotulelei (2013) have solidified them up the middle and the emergence of perhaps the best defensive line in the league -- featuring Lotulelei, Charles Johnson, Greg Hardy and Kawaan Short -- makes it easy to recall when the Panthers dominated with Julius Peppers, Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker and Brentson Buckner in the early 2000's.

This unit might be better and it has a trickle-down effect on a pretty talent-thin secondary. Less time to cover receivers equates to better secondary play and forces quarterbacks into mistakes. Colin Kaepernick barely had time to get his bearings Sunday and was sacked more than four times for the first time in his career, with the Panthers bringing him down six times.

Mix in an offensive with the capability of putting up points in quick fashion, a developing quarterback in Newton and enough talent at running back to wear down opponents, and you have the sort of balance that contenders are made of.

1-3 feels like a season ago, not a month. The Panthers morphed into a contender overnight. Sunday justified giving them the hype from the previous four games.

Heading Home
Carolina's win wasn't just good for the Panthers. The Seahawks and wideout Golden Tate appreciated it as well.

From Seattle's perspective, having the 49ers lose was massive. They've got a 2.5-game cushion in the NFC West and look to have a real shot at locking up homefield advantage in the NFC early. Seattle throttled the Falcons (in Atlanta no less) on Sunday, with Tate playing a huge role while making a marvelous one-handed grab that's easily a candidate for catch of the year:

Seattle's got its issues, but they might be trending in the right direction as well. Everyone forgets this now, but the Seahawks didn't really drop their offensive game into another gear until December. At that point Russell Wilson really started finding a groove, the read-option was cooking, Marshawn Lynch was dominating and the Seahawks averaged a whopping 38.6 points per game that month.

Percy Harvin's a good bet to come back next week, which will give him a game's worth of action and the bye to get ready for Seattle's two biggest games. They'll host the Saints and head to San Francisco. Win those games and Seattle would have all but locked down homefield throughout the playoffs. They'd have thrown Carolina a bone too. Don't be shocked if they start really rolling here in a few weeks.

The Other NFC West Team
Lost in the chatter of the toughest division in football is what the Cardinals are secretly doing. At 5-4 they're not in the playoffs if the season ended today, but they're not that far off. Carson Palmer behind that offensive line is a major concern -- he took another eight QB hits and threw a pick, which he's done in every single game so far -- but their upcoming schedule is ridiculously easy.

At Jacksonville, versus Indy, at Philly, versus St. Louis, at Tennessee is cake. Win three of those and they could be at eight wins with matchups against the Seahawks and 49ers to close out the season and the possibility of a wild-card spot on the line.

Beating those teams isn't free or easy but Arizona's playing good enough defense and has the requisite weapons on offense to flirt with a sweep of those teams. Spot the playoff contender before they sneak up on you.

The Curious Case of Andre Johnson
If you caught any of the aforementioned Cardinals game, you probably saw Texans wideout Andre Johnson do this ridiculousness:

How he managed to do that is beyond me. The combination of skill and athleticism required to pull that off isn't present in 99.9 percent of human beings. Whatever the case, though, it was Johnson's 61st touchdown of his career. That's good for 65th all-time and is two less than Calvin Johnson.

What makes it really crazy is that over the past eight days Johnson's caught 8.2 percent of his career touchdown passes. For a guy drafted in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft that just seems odd. When in doubt, blame the play-calling.

Oh We Drafted That Guy?
Sunday was a nice reminder that half a season a career does not make. Tavon Austin has been under fire for the first few weeks of the season because he didn't do any damage for the Rams. They misused him and for whatever reason couldn't get the ball in his hands. That all changed Sunday, as Austin exploded for 138 receiving yards, two touchdown passes and a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown.

The joystick and turbo buttons are working, thank you. The play that most exemplifies what Austin can do for this offense, though, was the crossing route that Austin took to the house later.

This is why it's so mind-blowing to me that the Rams weren't getting Austin involved more often before? How hard is it to have him run five or six of these crossing routes a game or put him in some screen and swing pass sets and just get him the ball?

The results speak for themselves:

The Rams -- who completely pulverized the Colts Sunday -- would be foolish to ignore his talents any longer.

Ravens-Bengals
This is not how you defend a Hail Mary pass. The Bengals somehow scored at the end of regulation to force overtime on Sunday in what was easily the most stunning moment of the day, non-Jaguars-winning division.

What I love about this play: how casual A.J. Green is the whole time.

He's just hanging out, watching the ball and when it gets batted up it's a can o' corn for the wideout.

What I hate: James Ihedigbo's decision to bat the ball upwards. Pretty obvious how dumb that was, right?

Don't let this play fool you into thinking that Andy Dalton had a good game, either. That's two-straight weeks where he's played really poorly after a very impressive three-game stretch. Cincinnati's still on top of the AFC North and very much the favorite to win. But Sunday's ugly showing against a limited Ravens team tightened things up considerably.

 
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