Welcome to December; the Panthers are perfect in the regular season over the last calendar year. The defense is dominating, but it’s the offense that is taking the league by storm… and the biggest reason 16-0 is well within reach

By Peter King
December 01, 2015

It’s a big day in Kannapolis and Rock Hill. From Kill Devil Hills to Cullowhee, from Kiawah Island to Rocky Bottom … Where Dean Smith coached and Coach K coaches, and where the Ol’ Ball Coach coached … Where Michael Jordan was nurtured, played and now owns … From the Atlantic Ocean to some of the most beautiful forests in the United States, soak it in. You’re No. 1. The Carolina Panthers sit atop the Fine Fifteen this morning, the best team in the National Football League.

It’s such a great story, the Panthers as the only unbeaten team in the NFL entering December. Stunning, really. Cam Newton’s favorite receiver goes down with a torn ACL in training camp, and the top two draft picks are thought to have been drafted too early, and GM Dave Gettleman is questioned for not getting Newton enough weapons and a good enough offensive line. The Panthers are chuckling at all of it now. They’re 11-0. And there is absolutely nothing fluky about it.

Simon Bruty for Sports Illustrated

Case in point: In the last nine games Carolina has scored 27 points or more in every game. Look at the best offenses in football. New England has scored 27 points seven times in their last nine games. Cincinnati, seven times. Arizona, five times. Green Bay, four. Pittsburgh, three. This was supposed to be a struggling offense with few weapons, having lost top receiver Kelvin Benjamin (ACL) and the franchise’s all time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (free agency). But the Panthers have won by 17, 28 and 19 in the last three weeks. With five games to play, they have a decent chance to be the second team in NFL history—along with the ’07 Patriots—to go through a regular season 16-0.

Oh, with December dawning today, consider that in precisely the last calendar year, the Panthers are 15-0 in the regular season. They go for 16-0 Sunday at New Orleans, which fields the worst defense in the league. The Saints have allowed 38.5 points per game in the last four weeks.

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The defense, with a defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera and a defensive coordinator in Sean McDermott who is widely respected around the league (and will be on the interview circuit for head-coaching jobs after this season), is a given. It’s good, the third-stingiest scoring defense in football. With Luke Kuechly quarterbacking the unit and two superb defensive tackles (Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short) caving in lines and a tackle machine (Thomas Davis) aiding Kuechly and an emerging superstar cover corner in Josh Norman, Carolina expects to hold offenses to the teens every Sunday.

But what got into this offense? Five things, I would maintain:

The joy of Cam. Carolina hasn’t tried to change his personality, and that is smart. I ask you this: If a player does everything right off the field—in the meeting rooms, in the locker room, prepared as football-nerd coaches like Rivera would demand, never providing reason for worry away from the facility—then why would you be remotely upset if he play-acted to his heart’s desire on the field? It’s who he is. He hands touchdown footballs to children, giving them the thrill of a lifetime. Just so long as he’s not showing up the opposition, why change him? “I would never want to change his personality,” says offensive coordinator Mike Shula. “I know him. He loves to win. He loves to perform. He loves to have fun. And he wants his fans to have fun. Sometimes I think we need to remind ourselves that football is fun, and when we have fun and we’re winning, we’re happy.”

Mike Shula. Newton was drafted in 2011. Shula was hired as quarterbacks coach in 2011, and as offensive coordinator two years later. Ask Alex Smith about the value of having one voice in your ear for several years, and how much that contributes to a quarterback’s success. I was interested to speak with Shula over the weekend, and to hear about one of football’s great comeback stories. Remember Shula’s four-year run as Alabama coach? He went 26-23 and got whacked, enabling the Tide to import Nick Saban in 2007. ”I was never discouraged,” Shula said. “I never fell out of love with football. Leaving Alabama, nothing about my love of the game wavered. I haven’t stopped since I fell in love with it in 10th grade. I just had to find a place to coach.” After a stop in Jacksonville, he landed in Charlotte, and he’s been the steady hand behind Newton since 2011.

Newton’s improvement throwing on the run—and how defenses play it. I watched some Newton video, and one play really stood out to me. Carolina faced Green Bay on Nov. 8, and on a third-and-16 snap in the shotgun, Newton rolled right against a three-man rush. With eight dropping in coverage, two Packers—safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker Joe Thomas—lurked near the line of scrimmage, respecting the threat of a run by Newton. That’s two spies. Meanwhile, wideout Jerricho Cotchery found a hole behind the two Packers defenders, a huge hole. As Newton rolled and the two Packer defenders waited for him to commit, Newton threw a completion to Cotchery, who turned and sprinted upfield; gain of 59. “This is not street ball he’s playing,” said Shula. “That play against Green Bay, you see how he has gained confidence through experience. You watch him, and you realize he knows that when he does one thing, defenses are going to react to that because they respect his ability to run and his ability to throw on the run.”

Newton’s improvement in the no-huddle, and merging it willy-nilly with huddling. Against Washington in Week 11 he used no-huddle on parts of four first-half scoring drives. And he’s used sleight of hand consistently all season. On the second scoring drive of that game, on the play after a no-huddle snap, he went under center, took the snap, and did the following four things: faked a quick sideline throw to Ted Ginn, held the defense with a play-action fake to Jonathan Stewart, stared briefly at Greg Olsen on a short curl over the middle, and then ripped a throw to the right sideline to rookie Devin Funchess. Gain of 11. Very quick, very confident. The effect on the defense, simply, is that defenders have to hold in place while Newton’s going through all the gyrations. Which, of course, gives him time to make a play. “When Cam moves off his spot now, he’s looking downfield, not just looking to run,” says Shula.

Newton’s improvement in… well, I guess you’d call it football stuff. I don’t recall ever seeing a quarterback draw defensive linemen offside on two consecutive snaps—until Newton did it against Washington. (I’m not saying it never happened; I’m sure it did. I just don’t recall seeing it.) Late in the first quarter he used his long and melodious “REDDEEEEEEEEE-SET!” and got Trent Murphy to jump. After “REDDEEEEEEEEE-HOI!” he got Jason Hatcher to jump. Against the Colts, Ginn dropped what would have been the winning touchdown pass in overtime. In year one or two, there’s a good chance Newton would have been demonstrative in an Are you kidding me? kind of way. Here he displayed no emotion. He just called the next play. Six minutes later, Carolina walked out with a win.

The guy is just a more well-rounded quarterback.

“A lot of this could have happened last year,” Shula says. “But he had the [ankle] surgery in the off-season and he couldn’t play in the minicamps, and then he got hurt in camp. So we were behind when the season started. We’ve been able to do a lot more off-field, off-season work this year.”

It shows. Of course, it also helps to have such a strong running game, and a growing offensive line. But the man who makes it all go is Newton.

Now onto the Fine Fifteen.

The Patriots might have retained the top spot (even with a loss) if not for this scene.
Joe Mahoney/AP

1. Carolina (11-0). They have one game remaining that would concern me: Dec. 20, at Giants. The Giants have been giant killers over the years, starting with beating the 13-0 Broncos behind Kent Graham in 1998. Panthers should be 13-0 entering New Jersey on Dec. 20, FYI, if they beat the bad Saints and the badly slumping Falcons the next two weeks.

2. Denver (9-2). Just 24 days ago the Broncos were 7-0, and fans were praying, “Just get us through the season with Manning without disaster.” Today they’re praying, “Whatever you do, don’t take Osweiler out of the lineup.”

3. New England (10-1). I would likely still have them No. 1, even with a loss, if Gronkowski wasn’t iffy. His injury made all the difference Sunday night. Well, that plus the muffed punt by Chris Harper, the practice-squadder the Pats cut Monday.

4. Arizona (9-2). Man, Bruce Arians really doesn’t like officials, does he?

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5. Cincinnati (9-2). As dangerous a team as there is in football when Andy Dalton is on.

6. Minnesota (8-3). Only two teams have allowed fewer than 200 points: the Vikings, whom Mike Zimmer coaches now (194), and Cincinnati, where Zimnmer was the longtime defensive coordinator (193).

7. Green Bay (7-4). Entering December, the Pack is 2-2 in division games. Losses to Lions and Bears … at Lambeau. Road-field advantage Thursday night at Detroit?

8. Seattle (6-5). Maybe without the voice in the back of his head whispering, “Get it to Graham,” Russell Wilson can have more of the same boffo games that he had Sunday against Pittsburgh.

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9. Pittsburgh (6-5). Seattle 39, Pittsburgh 30. One of the most impressive losses of the season. The Steelers will be heard from in January.

10. Kansas City (6-5). If the CBS crew doing this week’s Chiefs game at Oakland wants a fun factoid, here’s one they could use Sunday: “Well, it’s December, and it’s notable that Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith hasn’t thrown an interception since September.”

11. Indianapolis (6-5). Matt Hasselbeck is older than the coach of the Miami Dolphins. Hasselbeck has out-won Dan Campbell this year, too.

12. Houston (6-5). All of the sudden the Sunday night game in 12 days, New England at Houston, has Tom Brady saying, “Gronk? Gronk? Need you in this one, buddy. Need a big guy over the middle.”

13. New York Jets (6-5). I should have written a good chunk about the best I’d ever seen Ryan Fitzpatrick—his Sunday performance against Miami, featuring the beautiful music he made with Brandon Marshall downfield.

14. Washington (5-6). Read the Kirk Cousins story today on our site. You’ll learn a lot about a very good person and a quarterback who just might be a long-term solution for Washington.

15. Buffalo (5-6). Did someone kidnap the Bills’ pass rush? Last six games: Seven sacks. Fairly disgraceful—and that’s even with a terrific performance beating up Tom Brady eight days ago.

Also receiving votes…

16. Chicago (5-6). Fairly soon a lot of people could be saying, “Boy, was I wrong about Jay Cutler.”

17. Tampa Bay (5-6). The loss of rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander to a four-game PED suspension will be a big blow.

18. Oakland (5-6). Derek Carr in Nashville: 330 yards, no picks, fifth win of the year. We’re getting used to this.

19. New York Giants (5-6). Giants-Jets Sunday! All aboard the Mediocrity Train! Combined record: 11-11!

20. Detroit (4-7). Could have put Atlanta (6-5) here with two more wins. One problem: no trust in the Falcs.

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