The Panthers' third consecutive win was overshadowed by two key injuries, one on each side of the ball. How they bounce back from that adversity may define who they become as a team in 2021.
Carolina is 3-0 in the loaded NFC conference where several teams will vie for one of two wildcard berths, if not a division title. Carolina's hot start has put them in the conversation of potential playoff teams that include some of the best teams in the league. Green Bay, Minnesota, Chicago, San Francisco, Arizona, Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa Bay, New Orleans. It's difficult to imagine six of those teams not making the playoffs. The NFC playoff race is going to be a tough contest in 2021 but Carolina is not only on the lead lap, but they are first in line with a long road to go.
Stats - It's difficult to place Carolina in various rankings stats because the rest of the league hasn't finished Week 3 yet, but here's what we know... The defense has allowed 30 points in three games compared to 81 points at this point last season. The point differential of their games is +39, the best in the league. They have accumulated 14 sacks in three games which is a pace of 79 for the 17-game season (75 if a 16-game season). The record for sacks in a season is 72 by the '84 Chicago Bears. Nine different Panthers have registered at least half a sack this season. Carolina is #1 in rushing defense (45.0 yards allowed per game) and #1 in passing defense (146.0 yards allowed per game). Their total yards allowed per game is fewer than 26 other team's passing yards alone allowed per game.
The team, especially Sam Darnold, is starting to learn what it takes to win games and have the knowledge and understanding to keep doing it. Winning is contagious and it builds confidence. Confidence builds swagger, and swagger is intimidating.
The injuries put a damper on what was otherwise a strong victory on the road in front of a national audience. Christian McCaffrey left with a hamstring strain in the second quarter and he did not return. Hamstring injuries can be tricky to recover from especially if you try to return too soon resulting in a worse injury than what you had originally. Even with ten days between their next game, it's fairly safe to assume McCaffrey won't be in their plans for Dallas in Week 4. Carolina will not want to risk their star player to further injury. As for Jayce Horn. Reports say he has broken multiple bones in his foot on a non-contact freak play. The early prognosis is that he could miss 2-3 months. Horn was a big reason why the defense has been on top of its game, but he wasn't the only reason. This team is strong than any one player and now they will have adversity to overcome as they continue their path up the ranks in the crowded NFC.
The offensive line has struggled at times in every game this season. In many ways, it's a puzzle that will take several different combinations of trial and error before knowing which parts fit together the best. At least in the meantime the team is playing well and winning. If the solidarity and cohesion of the line were better, the offense would be converting more third-down attempts, having more red zone touchdown conversions, and dominating their opponent even more. They are 11th in third-down conversion percentage (42.5%), which isn't bad, but it's not where they need to be. Carolina is scoring a touchdown in two of every four trips to the red zone (50%), which is where they finished last year. If the Panthers want to maximize their offense, they will have to increase this number into the 60% range, if not higher.
All in all, it's tough to be too disappointed in this team. They are miles ahead of where they were at this time last year. There is a lot to look forward to, it's fun and thrilling to be a fan of this team, and the outlook for 2021 is looking bright. Leaders are often born through success in adverse conditions. The next few weeks will be a challenge for this team with games at Dallas and home vs Philadelphia, and Minnesota and they all may be without McCaffrey. It's time for Sam Darnold to earn his stripes. This is his team to lead.