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The NFL storylines at the halfway point in the season shifted from the Broncos first loss of the season at Indianapolis to the Cowboys virtual elimination from playoff contention. The most intriguing story continues to be the play of the Carolina Panthers.
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers continue their march to an undefeated season. The Panthers upped their record to a franchise best, 8-0 after handing Green Bay a 37-28 loss at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina has a 12- game regular season winning streak, the longest active streak in the NFL. The Panthers hold a two game lead on their next closest competitor for home field advantage in the NFC.
Carolina is achieving all of their success with team play. On offense they run the ball effectively, they are the NFL’s second best rush offense, and throw to set up the run. Defensively the Panthers are tenacious, holding opponents to 228 yards passing per game; they have 12 interceptions and 20 sacks with a +5 takeaway margin.
Newton continues to exert his will on his own team and over the opposition. He is not having a career individual season but he makes plays with his arm and his legs while minimizing mistakes in the pocket; he’s on pace for the lowest sack rate of his career.
The Carolina defense, which has held opponents to 19.4 points per game, has come of age with the play of linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, two of the leagues hardest hitters.
The Panthers never relinquished the lead over the Packers, at one time leading 27-7.
Newton totaled four touchdowns, three in the air and one on the ground and 354 total yards, 297 passing and 57 rushing.
Carolina’s defense sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and held the Packers to 71 total rushing yards. The biggest play of the game had Green Bay on Carolina’s three yard line with a fourth and goal to go and time running out. Carolina pressured the usually unflappable Rodgers into a poor decision which resulted in an interception and a Carolina win.
The Panthers second half schedule looks more formidable than the first half. With four division games, two versus the Falcons, and trips to New Orleans, New York (Giants) and Dallas looming, the dream of an undefeated season looks less likely.
Home field advantage through the postseason is a real possibility for a team built on traditional football strengths, a running game and defense.
Even at 8-0 the Panthers legitimacy remains in question. The victory over the Packers went a long way in changing some people’s minds, however, doubts will continue to linger.
The Panthers are far from dominating on either side of the ball and any doubt will follow them throughout the remainder of the regular season. The playoffs will be this team’s true measuring stick. Whatever Carolina’s record is in the regular season if they fail to achieve in the postseason they will not earn the respect they desire.
The team goal should focus on continuous improvement rather than win totals with the ultimate prize being postseason success.