The Rams are clearly the class of the NFC, and the road to Super Bowl LIII may very well go through Hollywood. But if you’re looking for a challenger, look no further than the 5–2 Panthers.
A week after putting together a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback on the road against the defending champions, Cam Newton and Carolina offensive coordinator Norv Turner undressed the league’s best defense in Sunday’s 36–21 win against Baltimore.
The Ravens were allowing 14.4 points and 280.6 yards per game. The Panthers hung 386 on them.
Turner thoroughly out-schemed the Ravens on Sunday with an offense that left Baltimore’s vaunted defense unbalanced throughout the day and left his quarterback with a throwing shoulder so injured that he didn’t feel comfortable attempting a 49-yard Hail May at the end of the first half. But Turner got first-round pick D.J. Moore (129 yards of total offense on seven touches) and second-year receiver Curtis Samuel on the field together regularly to show off the offense’s wrinkles.
To top it off, the offensive line kept Newton clean all game, allowing the QB an efficient 21-of-29 passing day with 219 yards and three total touchdowns.
Before Carolina, we last saw Turner resign from his post in Minnesota in 2016; his reasoning was that the Vikings would be better without him than with him. So you’re forgiven if you didn’t think Turner would be the best fit for Newton and the modern-day NFL offense. But the offensive coordinator has gotten Newton to buy into the plan the Panthers tried—and failed—to implement for the 29-year-old quarterback last year. Newton isn’t chucking the ball downfield hoping for the big play and is instead taking what the defense gives him. Newton now has his highest completion percentage (66.3) of his career as well as his lowest interception rate (1.7) ever.
“Going forward it’s really about the decision making process the quarterback has,” Rivera said. “I think he understands what’s happening underneath a lot more so, and he sees it even better.”
To be this good, though, the ball has to bounce your way. A pitch to Moore was mishandled and fell to the ground before bouncing right up to the rookie, who competed a 28-yard scamper. A pass at the goal line to wide receiver Devin Funchess got deflected at the line and wound up in running back Christian McCaffrey’s hands for a touchdown. Nickel cornerback Captain Munnerlyn got not one but two (2!) offensive pass interference calls go his way. Hell, the Panthers took a delay-of-game penalty at the edge of field-goal range, sent in a backup quarterback to attempt a Hail Mary, saw tight end Greg Olsen uncovered and completed a 13-yard pass with two seconds left on the clock to kick a 54-yarder at the end of the half.
Carolina’s two blemishes on its season record came on the road in Week 2 against Atlanta—who were, then, mostly healthy—and two weeks ago in Washington. The Panthers view the loss in Washington like last year’s dumbfounding loss in Chicago. They fumbled three times against Washington and Newton’s comeback efforts fell just short.
These Panthers shouldn’t be sneaking up on anyone this season, but they’re happy to fly under your radar if you let them.
“We’ve been on both sides of the spectrum and neither one has much impact on wins and losses,” Olsen said. “We’ve got to make sure we stay dialed into what we’re doing and can control. How other people react to us is kind of up to them.”
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