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Cover-2: Are the Panthers for real? Four takeaways from their hot start

Do the Panthers have the tools to make a strong case for contention as the 2015 season wears on? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss in a special black and teal Cover-2.

The Falcons’ 31–21 loss to the Saints on Thursday night left five undefeated teams still standing and one team alone at the top of the NFC South. After becoming the first team to repeat as NFC South champions last year, the Panthers are off to another strong start and bring a spotless 4–0 record into Sunday afternoon’s road test against the Seahawks.

What’s driving the quiet consistency in Carolina, and do the Panthers have the tools to make a strong case for contention as the 2015 season wears on? Chris Burke and Doug Farrar discuss in a special black and teal Cover-2.

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How has Cam Newton’s game changed this year?

Chris Burke: In terms of Newton’s progression, 2015 falls way behind what happened in ’13 and ’14. What we’re seeing now from Newton is much closer to the finished product of him as an NFL quarterback.

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What he has done more this season, at least through four games, is take off and run. Kelvin Benjamin’s season-ending ACL injury in training camp neutered Carolina’s passing game—Ted Ginn is second on the team in receptions, for crying out loud—and Newton’s 55.4% completion rate shows it. So the Panthers are giving him the green light to go, which he’s doing about 11 times per game. That’s way up from his average of 7.3 attempts per game last season. It is a dangerous way for a quarterback to live given the injury risk, but Newton has shown that he is willing and able to do whatever Carolina needs to get victories.

He’s only 26, so there still could be some growth from him as a passer. Overall, though, Newton has completed much of the maturation process. He’s just a really good NFL quarterback.

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Doug Farrar: He’s regressed in some ways, but it’s within the design of the offense. After Benjamin’s season-ending ACL injury suffered in training camp, the Panthers’ receiver depth outside of tight end Greg Olson was wafer-thin, to quote John Cleese in The Meaning of Life. As a result, Newton is running when he has to and passing very efficiently when he can. He’s got seven touchdowns to just two interceptions, and his career-low completion rate can be attributed in large part to a receiver corps that includes Philly Brown, Ted Ginn, Devin Funchess and Jerricho Cotchery. Not exactly a Murderers’ Row.

Newton is on pace to run the ball 172 times this season, which would be a career high by far. While that puts him in the crosshairs too often, there’s not much else offensive coordinator Mike Shula can do when lead back Jonathan Stewart isn't even on pace to hit the 1,000-yard mark this season. Newton is doing the best he can with what he’s got.

Where does the Panthers’ defense rank among the league’s best?

Burke: It’s up there, mainly because of the linebacking corps (when Luke Kuechly is out there) and secondary. Cornerback Josh Norman’s emergence as one of the best cover guys in the league has taken that group from decent to potentially dominant.

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The reason I hesitate to consider Carolina as the NFL’s standard is that the pass rush remains a bit of a missing piece. The Panthers won't get Charles Johnson back from injured reserve until at least Week 12, and now new acquisition Jared Allen also has to sit with numbness in his foot. There are solid options up front in their absence but no pass rushers that really scare opposing offensive lines—Mario Addison is closest.

The ground Carolina can cover out of its second and third levels helps make up for those deficiencies. Still, this unit might be more deserving of top billing come December, when Johnson and Allen presumably are back on the field.

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Farrar: Somewhere in the bottom of the top 10. The Panthers currently rank fifth in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted defensive metrics—fourth against the pass and 21st against the run—and the cornerback duo of Norman and Bené Benwikere is the centerpiece of that defense. Norman especially has established himself as the league’s next great cornerback.

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The linebacking corps headed by Kuechly and Thomas Davis has been enhanced by the addition of first-round pick Shaq Thompson, who has filled in estimably for Kuechly during his three-week stint in the NFL’s concussion protocol. There isn’t much to the pass rush, but Sean McDermott has built a defense that works from the secondary in, and he has the players to make that possible. I’d say this defense is coached as well as it’s played, but that the personnel along the front four will need to step up at some point.

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What is Carolina’s best plan of attack for beating Seattle in Week 6?

Burke: Same as always: Win in the trenches, try to force some mistakes and lean on Newton to make up the difference. Carolina has played Seattle tough each of the past three regular seasons and did so again in the playoffs last year. The issue has been scoring points—the Panthers are averaging 11.8 points during a five-game losing streak in the series—and it will probably be the case again Sunday.

For as effective as Newton has been at times, this is not an offense hitting many home runs, which means it usually requires a steady, methodical effort to find the end zone. That, or the defense needs to flip the field. Carolina forced five turnovers against the Buccaneers in Week 4 and continues to feature an opportunistic defense.

Seattle played much better offensively in Cincinnati last Sunday, but its offensive line has left Russell Wilson exposed throughout the season. The Lions nearly stole a win in Seattle on that weakness alone.

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Farrar: Carolina’s cornerbacks should be able to deal with Seattle’s receivers, and the Seahawks are doing a better job of taking Jimmy Graham out of their own offense than any opponent could. The Panthers will have to bring at least one linebacker to the line to give run support against Marshawn Lynch and Thomas Rawls, and the ends will need to pressure Russell Wilson—not a tough thing to do this year.

The real key matchup here is Cam Newton against Seattle’s front seven, especially ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril. Carolina's offensive line has had some issues this season. To pull off the win in Seattle, the Panthers will need to be creative in their concepts and hang in until the end, given Seattle's fourth-quarter breakdowns this season.

Where will the Panthers finish in NFC South, and what will their record be?

Burke: First place, 12–4. The Saints landed a blow by beating the Falcons on Thursday, but the NFC South sure looks like it will come down to two games: Atlanta at Carolina in Week 14, and Carolina at Atlanta in Week 16.

Carolina’s schedule is a tougher haul, on paper, than Atlanta’s until that home-and-home arrives: After Seattle this week, the Panthers start a three-game homestand against the Eagles, Colts and Packers, later have to navigate road trips to Dallas and the Giants. As long as the defense maintains (or improves upon) its current level, the Panthers should be well insulated against an extended losing streak, regardless of how inconsistent the passing attack is.

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Farrar: Second place, 10–6. There’s a bit of legitimacy to the thought that they haven't really played anyone serious yet, and I’m not sure how sustainable their offensive game plan is. Someone other than Newton will have to run the ball effectively and consistently, and someone other than Olsen will have to step up as a dynamic target. Ginn has the potential to do so if he can cut down on the drops. The Panthers are well on their way to long-term success, but there may be too many remaining positional issues for a deep playoff run this year.