It’s easy to forget that we’re just one season removed from watching the Panthers win an NFL-best 15 games and secure a berth in Super Bowl 50 behind the play of an elite defense and unstoppable MVP Cam Newton. Of course, the memories of that team are obscured by the version of the Panthers we saw last year, when Carolina imploded after its Super Bowl loss to the Broncos and won just six games to finish dead last in the NFC South. That version of Newton completed a little over half of his passes and finished with 19 touchdowns, 14 picks, and a career-low 75.8 passer rating, and that version of the defense took a step back with the loss of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman (in free agency) and All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly (who missed the final six games following a concussion).
But five weeks into the season, Carolina’s shown some flashes of its former class-of-the-NFC, Super Bowl–contender self: Kuechly and the defense have been disciplined; the pass rush has come alive behind free-agent addition Julius Peppers; a handful of playmakers such as Christian McCaffrey, Kelvin Benjamin, and Devin Funchess have stepped up on offense; and, most importantly, Newton resembles his 2015 self. After beating the Lions in Detroit 27-24 on Sunday in a game that never felt as close as the final score indicated, the Panthers look like they’re quietly back to being one of the toughest, most balanced teams in NFL again.
To get to 4-1 and reclaim the top spot in the NFC South, Carolina had to weather Newton’s concerning slow start; in the team’s first three games—wins over 49ers and Bills and a loss to the Saints—Newton completed 61.4 percent of his passes at just 6.8 yards per attempt, with two touchdowns and four interceptions for a somehow-even-worse-than-last-year 69.7 passer rating. His poor performance and bouts with inaccuracy prompted questions about the health of his surgically repaired shoulder, and even at 2-1, the team’s success felt tenuous—they simply needed to get more from the offense. In the team’s 33-30 win over the defending champion Patriots at Gillette Stadium last week, the offense showed up and then some.
Newton came alive as a passer against New England, connecting on 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns to just one pick for a 130.8 passer rating—and he also reminded us how dangerous he can be as a runner by adding 44 yards and a touchdown on the ground. And while the Panthers’ signal-caller called it “a breakthrough game for us, a statement game,” there was a caveat attached to that promising performance: It came against what had been, to that point, the worst defense in the NFL.
On Wednesday, Cam Newton faced major backlash because of sexist comments he made to Charlotte Observer reporter Jourdan Rodrigue in a press conference. He apologized via video on Thursday for words he described as “extremely degrading and disrespectful to women,” but then said, after he and the Panthers played the Lions on Sunday, that his comments were “sarcasm” and that he was trying to give Rodrigue a compliment.
The Panthers’ road victory over Detroit—whose defense came into the game ranked fifth in Football Outsiders DVOA—it showed that Carolina’s win over the Patriots was no fluke. Newton completed 26 of 33 passes for 355 yards, three touchdowns, and a 141.8 rating on Sunday.
A svelte-looking Kelvin Benjamin shook off a knee injury suffered in Week 3 and hauled in four catches for 58 yards and a touchdown against Detroit’s stingy secondary. Benjamin showed he’s still the type of target who can make plays on third downs, use his body to shield defenders on slant routes, and sometimes be dangerous on go-routes up the sideline. In the third quarter, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound pass catcher got behind his defender and caught this beauty of a throw from Newton for a touchdown.
Receiver Devin Funchess has come on strong over the past few weeks, too, and the 6-foot-4, 225-pound third-year pro looks to be on the cusp of a legit breakout as Newton’s second big-bodied, pass-catching red zone target. He followed up a career day in New England (seven catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns) with another seven receptions for 53 yards and this touchdown grab on Sunday.
Funchess has helped soften the blow from the loss of tight end Greg Olsen to a broken foot, and his about-face toward consistency in route-running and catching has been a major boon for an offense that needed someone to step up. The team got a further boost from veteran tight end Ed Dickson on Sunday, when the 30-year-old went off for 175 yards on five catches, more yards than he’d ever posted in a full season in his previous three years with the Panthers.
While the run game was ineffective against the Lions’ stout front (just 28 yards on 28 attempts), rookie running back Christian McCaffrey got involved as the former Stanford star scored his first touchdown as a pro, taking the ball into the end zone on this nifty college-style shovel-option play.
Of course, the defense remains the team’s unshakable foundation, the one constant for the Panthers throughout. Kuechly’s still the insanely instinctive, rangy enforcer who’s gone to four Pro Bowls and won the Defensive Player of the Year award. Thomas Davis, who remains a difference-maker, recovered a fumble on Sunday. The secondary has played with more discipline so far this year, and up front, Carolina’s pass rush has thrived. In all, the Panthers sacked Stafford six times: a pair coming from defensive tackle Kawann Short, one from defensive end Mario Addison, one from cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, and another from Peppers. The 37-year-old looks like one of the best offseason free-agent pickups in the league, and now leads the team with 5.5 sacks on the year.
The Panthers defense doesn’t look much different from the unit the team fielded in 2015, and with Newton’s newfound accuracy and zip the past two weeks—a turnaround aided by the fact that “he’s gotten healthier, and that’s the truth,” per head coach Ron Rivera—the offense is suddenly starting to resemble the one from that Super Bowl squad as well. That balance is what makes Carolina such a tough out; not only do you have to find a way to run the ball or throw it over an unrelenting defense with talent on all three levels, but you’ve also got to figure out how to stop an unpredictable, explosive offense quarterbacked by a playmaker that can beat you with his arm and his legs. With so much parity in the NFC, it’s tough to know much about anybody at this point in the season. But along with the Packers (4-1) and Eagles (4-1), it’s clear that the Panthers have once again established themselves as one of the best teams in the conference.