Nice to get some more positive "objective" press from a national analyst, particularly one like Brian Billick who has actually coached champions, and is not hyper-positive like Chucky (who I love, unlike some). Perhaps an undertone of "fluffiness", but, hey, it is well deserved.
I have called five of the Panthers games so far this season and have a pretty good handle about what this team is all about. But even I had my doubts about them being able to travel cross-country and beat a 49ers team that was ranked as the No. 1 rushing offense, the No. 5 scoring offense and the fourth-best scoring defense in the entire NFL.
Well, consider Sunday’s game as a warning shot across the bow because there is definitely a new power in the conference.
The Panthers have arguably the best front seven in the NFL and have a lot of beef up the middle to keep blockers off their playmaking linebackers, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. If the 49ers have the best linebackers in the league with Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, then the Panthers must have the second-best unit. Kuechly finished the game with 11 total tackles and recorded his first sack of the season, but even more impressive is his ability to cover tight ends. In my opinion, he is the best cover linebacker in the entire NFL, and that diversity makes him an invaluable asset. Thomas Davis had just five tackles in the game, but forced a critical fumble that was the Panthers' first of two takeaways on the game that helped seal the one-point victory.
This defense is holding opponents to just 12.8 points per game this season and only 9.5 points per game in their six wins. They are ranked in the top three in nearly every major defensive category and are built to win games just like they did on Sunday. They have a three-headed rushing attack of their own, and really a fourth when you add Cam Newton to the mix. DeAngelo Williams gives them the explosive element (his 27-yard TD run just before the half ended up being the difference in the game), while Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert can come in and bang between the tackles as well as catch passes out of the backfield.
But the Panthers aren’t without their weaknesses, most notably the guards along the offensive line. The Panthers have yet to find a steady replacement for Amini Silatolu, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Because of that injury, they have been rotating guards on either side of the line looking for the right combination...This will be an ongoing experiment for the remainder of the season, but Cam Newton can make up for a lot of mistakes up front with his ability to elude defenders and make plays outside of the pocket.
If they can back up this win with another against the Patriots, then it will no longer be just a warning shot across the bow; the league will be on full notice that the Panthers are just as dangerous as the Seahawks and the Saints in the NFC.