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.
WEEK 10 GRADESPanthers get B+
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.
"Ok I see u Carolina. We appreciate that!!!! We really do."