The Carolina Panthers just keep on winning.
They took down the Titans, 27-10, in Tennessee on Sunday to improve to 9-0 and take a two-game lead over the Cardinals (7-2) and Vikings (7-2) for home-field advantage in the NFC.
Did anyone see Carolina starting 9-0 after Kelvin Benjamin went down with a torn ACL in the preseason?
“Man, heck no,” former Carolina Pro-Bowler and current Panthers Radio Network sideline reporter Jordan Gross said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “Before Kelvin got hurt, I didn’t think they’d go 9-0. That’s a tall task to take on. But honestly, I was very comfortable with the receiver group after Kelvin got hurt. I just knew that the relationship that Cam had with those guys, it was going to take all of them to carry the load together, but Cam felt good about those guys. We had good scheme. We had Greg Olsen, who catches everything you throw at him. You have Ed Dickson, who can make some plays out of the tight end position as well. So no, I didn’t think they’d go 9-0, but I wasn’t as concerned as everybody else when Kelvin went down. Now, when he comes back, I’ll be the one in the front of the line saying ‘Welcome back’ because it’ll be great to get him next year, that’s for sure.”
Carolina ranks fourth in the league in scoring offense (28.3 points per game) and sixth in scoring defense (19.4 points). The Panthers have drafted well, they’ve brought in quality free agents, and they’re getting it done on both sides of the ball.
Gross said Carolina’s chemistry is palpable.
“When you walk around the building, there’s just good mojo in that building,” he said. “Everybody’s excited about playing. They’re selfless players and their biggest concern is 9-0. That’s what really helped them get through a lot of injuries and a lot of tough games.”
Of course, Cam Newton has helped, too. He was 21-of-26 for 217 yards and two touchdowns (one pass, one rush) against the Titans and has 21 touchdowns (15 pass, six rush) to nine interceptions on the season. There were a few games that looked dicey earlier in the year – like when Carolina trailed Seattle by two scores in the fourth quarter on the road – but Newton has come through every time his teammates have needed him.
“You know when he’s in the huddle with you that you’ve got a chance to win,” Gross said. “That’s one of his best attributes and you can see it with this team. They have really rallied around the guy. He doesn’t panic when times get tough or if you’re at Seattle and need a couple scores in the fourth quarter. He’s got a confidence to him that’s infectious. And the thing that I’ve enjoyed watching him this season in particular is how much better he’s got at being quarterback and realizing he doesn’t have to make every single play. His highlight reel from this season might not be as good as some were in the past, but he’s a better quarterback because he’s thrown the check-downs, his accuracy has gotten better and better. His pass-completion percentage isn’t where he’d like it to be, but he’s making big plays when you need him, and he’s only really using his legs when the situation calls for it. So I’ve just enjoyed watching his maturation process this season. It’s a lot of fun.”
Looking at the remaining schedule, there isn’t a team left that is discernibly better than Carolina. The top tests will likely all come on the road: at Dallas on Nov. 26 (assuming that Tony Romo plays), at the Giants on Dec. 20 and at Atlanta on Dec. 27.
But regardless of whether the Panthers go 16-0 or 12-4, the expectations aren’t just to win the division or just to get a first-round bye or just to win a playoff game.
“Yeah, I think it’s beyond that,” Gross said. “This team, in my final season in 2013, we went 12-4, won the division and lost after a first-round bye to the 49ers. Last year, the team somehow won the division with a losing record and they won a playoff game and lost in the second round. So you can be 9-0, 10-0, 16-0, but if this team doesn’t get at least to the NFC Championship Game, then in everybody’s opinion that’s in and around the team, I think is definitely going to be a disappointment.”