There are those who will tell you that, despite their 6–0 record, the Panthers really haven't beaten anyone. Their first four wins came against the Jaguars, Texans, Saints and Buccaneers, they then beat the reeling Seahawks on a last-second blown coverage, and their sixth victory came on Sunday night against an Eagles team that alternates between bad and good on a per-play basis. Scoff at that record at your peril, though, because if you're not drinking this team's Kool-Aid just yet, you're missing a lot. The 2015 Panthers are an old-school squad, relying on power football, a mobile quarterback, explosive plays in the passing game, and a sneaky-good defense that makes plays over and over again.
In their 27–16 win over Philadelphia, they showed that they're legitimate championship contenders by doing what needed to be done: defeating another potential playoff contender even though they weren't at the top of their game. Cam Newton threw three interceptions on the night (though at least one was arguably the receiver’s fault), but he also managed just enough in the air to keep drives alive. Running back Jonathan Stewart was the star on offense with 125 yards on 24 carries, and several big pushes through Philly's renowned front seven.
“I'll tell you what, Stewart played with a chip on his shoulder and made life very easy for the whole offense to keep going,” Newton told NBC's Michele Tafoya after the game. “[Fellow running back Mike] Tolbert played with a real passion today, considering how emotional he was after the passing of his uncle, and the offensive line, man, they make my job so easy.” Newton said that it was a combined team victory, and that came across on both sides of the ball.
That's what makes this Panthers team so dangerous. It plays together, and even when it doesn't look great, things usually go the right way.
“We’re not done yet” Newton concluded. "We’re not satisfied yet. Yeah, it's great to be 6–0, but there are a lot more teams that are 6–0, too. Coach [Ron] Rivera always says, ‘Embrace the journey,’ and that's what we're trying to do. We're going about each and every week with great weeks of practice, and hoping it carries over to gameday.”
So far, so good. As for the Eagles, Chip Kelly’s team couldn’t get out of its own way again, which wasn't the problem against the far more vulnerable Giants last week, when a 27–7 win was the final result. This time, every missed opportunity seemed to turn into a blown drive, and every bad play call seemed to cost twice as much. That's what happens when you play the NFL's best teams. Right now, that's what the Panthers are.
Three takeaways from this game:
1. The Panthers are fully committed to power football
In an era when the buzzwords all seem to be about multi-receiver sets and the decline of the physical game, the Panthers come across like something from another generation. They're not, really. What they’re doing on offense isn’t very different than what the Seahawks and 49ers have put together in their recent tenures of success. When you combine an intimidating, dominant rushing attack with a quarterback capable of creating big plays on the ground and through the air and a group of targets who know where they're supposed to be, you can still win in today's NFL. And they were just as resolute about the physical nature of that offense on this Ted Ginn, Jr. end-around...
The equation was simple, and deadly effective. The Panthers took Philly’s estimable pursuit-based front seven and put it on its heels by forcing it to play an unfamiliar power game. A hugely improved offensive line is the key to it all, with center Ryan Kalil and right guard Trai Turner worthy of special mention.
2. Chip Kelly's playbook is getting smaller and smaller
When Chip Kelly came into the NFL from Oregon in 2013, his modus operandi was based on the combination of a furiously paced no-huddle attack, and a group of fairly simple but easily-run plays. It worked very well for a while, but Kelly’s starting to learn what many before him have also intuited, usually the hard way: if your game plan is simple, it had better be perfect, of this league will rip it apart. And it's clear that between an increasingly simple set of routes and iffy execution overall, things aren't working as they once did. Sam Bradford completed 26 of 46 passes for just 205 yards, no touchdowns and an interception that wasn't his fault. Ryan Mathews led all Eagles running backs with 97 yards on the ground, including a career-high 63-yard touchdown, but he only saw six carries in the whole game.
But the main problem was route concepts in which there weren't enough open receivers on plays longer than a few yards past the line of scrimmage, and that certainly didn't help the already erratic Bradford, whose tendency to hold the ball too long was a painful one in this case. Bradford was sacked five times, hit nine times and pressured on just about every play. Newton’s picks kept the Eagles in the game, but sustained drives were a rarity, and this is a theme all too common to the 2015 Eagles.
3. Don't look now, but Carolina’s defense is for real
Perhaps the true test of a great defense is how well it operates when its best player isn't at his best. The Panthers showed their mettle even when linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was turned around on Mathews’ long run and had a couple of coverage mishaps, wasn't what he usually is. Veteran ‘backer Thomas Davis was all over the field, veteran end Jared Allen made an impact with two late sacks when Philly was trying to mount a comeback, defensive tackle Kawann Short was a real hassle for All-Pro center Jason Kelce all night, and Josh Norman continued his ascent to an inevitable status as the league's next true shutdown cornerback. It all adds up to a 6–0 team that's for real on both sides of the ball.