FOXBORO – The NFL’s flavor of the week? The Carolina Panthers.
With five straight wins including a road win at San Francisco, the Panthers crossed over from “crappy team that’s playing pretty good” to “good team that may be great” with astonishing speed.
This is the arc of Carolina’s season. Begin 1-3. Follow that with four wins in which they outscored score opponents 130-48. Top off by beating the defending conference champions in their joint.
“Yeah, buts…” accompanying the four-game streak – the main one being that the Vikings, Rams, Bucs and Falcons suck this year – were replaced by “THESE GUYS ARE FOR REAL!!” with the win over the 49ers.
The Panthers are luxuriating in all the sudden adoration. These were some of the comments in the wake of the win over San Fran.
“We heard all the naysayers say we hadn’t played anybody and blah, blah, blah. Well, we played somebody today on the road in their place, and beat them,” said free safety Mike Mitchell. “So they shouldn’t have too much to say. We’re relevant. We’re here.”
“Defending NFC champions, 5 1/2 hour flight, one of the best running backs (in Frank Gore), the best running quarterback in the league, one of the best defenses in the league, and we come in, 10-9 ballgame, a slugfest. We’ve just got to keep preparing every week. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot from here on out,” predicted corner Drayton Florence.
Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards predicted a playoff rematch between the 49ers and the six-win Panthers, offering, “We probably are going to have to see this team again in the playoffs very easily. They are a great team. I am just so thankful we came out here and played well defensively, and came out with the win.”
Meanwhile, Bill Belichick was telling his 7-2 team after its 55-14 win over Pittsburgh that seven wins gets you nothing in the NFL.
The Panthers’ belief in their “arrival” isn’t something the Patriots will dampen before Monday night. The 14-year-old habit in Foxboro is to feed the opponent’s ego all week long then try and crush spirits at game-time.
Tuesday was feeding time for Tom Brady.
“They have different strengths than the other teams that we’ve faced,” Brady said of the Panthers’ defense. “They have a very good team. They rush the quarterback. That tandem that they had last year, is the same group they have this year that led the league in sacks from those two (defensive end) positions: [Greg] Hardy and [Charles] Johnson, and then [Mario] Addison is a great rusher. They have a great front. They rotate all these guys in.
"They can all rush the quarterback and they’ve got linebackers that can tackle, [Luke] Kuechly is a great young player and makes tackles everywhere. If you miss a throw, it’s usually an interception. You just have to know the challenge, know what it takes, 60 minutes of great football. You’re not just going to go in there and put together 30 good minutes and think you’re going to win. We have to play well all night.”
Even if they have faced a collection of struggling offenses, the Panthers are legitimately solid on defense. The highest outputs from opposing offenses were 24 from the Bills and 22 from Arizona in Weeks 2 and 5. That’s a long time ago.
But it’s hard to get around the fact the offenses they faced are rated (in order) 6, 24, 30, 22, 13, 18, 31, 23 and 10th in points per game.
The Patriots are not what they have been in years past but they are getting players back, coming off a bye, and Brady’s trust in his teammates is growing.
This will be the Panthers' biggest test. We’ll see if the flavor of the week melts or meets it.