For most of the year, the Panthers have been overshadowed by a host of teams in the NFC. The reawakened Rams and high-flying Eagles have dominated headlines all season, the Vikings just keep winning, and the Saints look unstoppable thanks in part to one of the best rookie classes in recent memory, with Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore up for respective Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The up-and-down Falcons, the always dramatic Seahawks, the now-eliminated Cowboys, and the saga of Aaron Rodgers’s collarbone injury have stolen plenty of attention away from a Carolina team that’s won seven of their last eight games and clinched a spot in the postseason with a 22–19 victory against the Buccaneers on Sunday. But while they’ve been busy flying under the radar the past two months, the Panthers have quietly rediscovered their identity as a physical running team, and their resurgence on the ground gives them a chance to make some playoff noise.
Carolina’s playoff-clinching win against Tampa Bay was of the ugly variety, no doubt. The Panthers needed a late-game rally and a little bit of luck. Quarterback Cam Newton recovered his own fumbled snap from the 2-yard line to pick it up and dive into the end zone for the go-ahead, game-winning touchdown with 39 seconds remaining. That’s not going to be the victory that convinces anyone that Carolina is a Super Bowl squad, but it is another example of the type of winning formula they’ve found over the past two months. As a team, Carolina totaled 115 rush yards on 31 totes, continuing their incredible turnaround on the ground to notch their ninth consecutive game with more than 100 rushing yards — the longest active streak in the NFL, and second only to the Eagles’ run of ten games over the century mark from earlier this year. Carolina’s boost in the rushing attack has been the biggest factor in the team’s recent hot streak; A newly-consistent run game, combined with a typically strong defense and a big-play special teams group has helped the Panthers weather Newton’s erratic performance as a passer.
Of course, Newton himself is at the center of that ground-game turnaround. He picked up chunks of yardage with his legs against the Bucs on Sunday, matching last week’s season-high for rush attempts with 14 carries for 52 yards, including that last-minute score that helped push his team to a win. It was enough to overcome another off day from him in the passing game, as he completed 16 of 25 passes for just 160 yards and a pick against Tampa Bay’s banged-up defense, his seventh game this season with a sub-70 passer rating. But a win’s a win, especially late in the year, and the style in which the Panthers secured their playoff berth was a departure from the style of the first seven weeks of the season.
Early on, Carolina seemed to rise and fall with how well Newton was throwing the ball. In back-to-back wins over New England and Detroit in Weeks 4 and 5, Newton threw six touchdowns to just one interception for a combined passer rating of 137.2, but then followed those two performances up with dismal outings the following two games. In back-to-back losses to the Eagles and Bears, Newton threw one touchdown and five interceptions with a combined passer rating of just 51.0. That loss to Chicago dropped the Panthers to 4–3, and they still seemed to be trying to figure out who they were. At times, they resembled the near-unstoppable 2015 squad that finished 15–1 and went to the Super Bowl, and at others, a discombobulated group that lacked any semblance of balance. The thing that really seemed to be missing, though, was something we’ve all come to expect from the Ron Rivera- and Newton-led Panthers teams of the past seven seasons: a physical and versatile rushing attack built largely around quarterback-option runs. Going into Week 8, Carolina ranked 29th in the NFL in rush yards per carry (3.41), were tied for 20th in rushing yards (681), and had scored just three times on the ground (tied for 20th). At that point, both Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey were averaging fewer than 3.0 yards per carry and had zero rushing touchdowns between them. Newton had carried the ball more than 10 times in a game just once.
But the Panthers’ 17–3 win against Tampa Bay in Week 8 was a turning point. Carolina unleashed Newton as a runner — he carried the ball 11 times for 44 yards in that game — and Stewart finally got into the end zone. The next week, in a crucial 20–17 win against the Falcons at home, the Panthers exploded for 201 yards and two scores on the ground; Newton ran the ball nine times for 86 yards and a touchdown, and McCaffrey added 66 yards and a score. Carolina dropped 294 yards rushing against Miami the next week — with 95 yards from Newton, 110 yards from Stewart, 68 yards and a score from Cameron Artis-Payne, and another 23 yards and a touchdown from McCaffrey. Carolina went over 200 yards on the ground again in Week 14 in their impressive win against the Vikings. Stewart led the way with 103 yards and three touchdowns, Newton rushed 11 times for 70 yards, and McCaffrey added 35 yards on eight totes. All told, from Weeks 8 through 15, the Panthers ran for a league-high 1,219 yards on 5.19 yards per attempt (second) and scored 11 touchdowns on the ground (tied for second). They were like a brand new team.
So, how’d that happen? For one, Carolina seemed to realize that Newton is most dangerous when he can run the ball all over a defense, and after averaging seven carries for 30 yards in the first seven games, he’s doubled his output in the eight games since to average 10 rushes for 60 yards a game. The Panthers’ offensive line seemed to gel midway through the year, too; it took about two months for free agent left tackle Matt Kalil to settle in to his new team’s scheme, learn the nuances and, as he put it, just “focus on the guy [he’s] blocking.” The line also had to adjust to losing center (and Matt’s brother) Ryan Kalil in Week 1 to a neck injury. That threw backup Tyler Larsen into action, which hurt communication along the line earlier on. As ESPN’s NFL Matchup pointed out last week, from Weeks 1 through 8, Carolina ranked 29th in the NFL in yards before contact per rush (1.89). But from Week 8 through 15, they rank first, providing Newton and the team’s backs a whopping 3.74 yards before contact per rush. Offensive roles appear to have become more defined in the second half as well: Stewart’s back to being the team’s bellcow, between-the-tackles sustainer, McCaffrey’s solidified himself as the team’s moveable chess piece, and Newton is the undefendable X factor that can either run, pitch it, or pass. And, of course, offensive coordinator Mike Shula deserves a little bit of credit for drawing up effective plays.
Remember my complaints last week that the #Panthers offense was not creative enough? Just got a 60-yd TD with an unbalanced OL and a 6th OL. FOUR OL to the right of the center. I've never seen anything like it.— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) December 10, 2017
Put together, the Panthers have rediscovered their true identity, where “Keep Pounding” isn’t just the team’s slogan (which honors the late Panthers player and coach, Sam Mills), but also captures the style of football they play. Newton still has the ability to take over a game with his arm when he’s on, but failing that, the Panthers have proved in the past eight weeks that they’re balanced enough to beat teams in other ways — with a physical run game, strong special teams, and a stout defense. That formula makes them a team no one’s going to want to face come January.