The Carolina Panthers are back, y’all. Be it by popular or unpopular demand, this team looks good. Former third overall pick Sam Darnold looks like a professional football player in his first two starts for the Panthers. A change of scenery — namely, getting the hell away from the New York Jets — seems to have done the trick.
In Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints, Darnold passed for 305 and 2 touchdowns against the same defense that dominated Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers a week prior. Darnold also completed 68 percent of his passes against the Saints. In Week 1, Darnold took a little revenge on the Jets, torching them for 279 yards and a TD. Maybe the Jets are cursed?
Early on, though, what jumps out most is this Panthers defense. Last week against the Saints, Carolina’s defense held Alvin Kamara to 30 yards from scrimmage. Not for a quarter or a half; that was the entire game. They forced Jameis Winston into throwing two interceptions (nothing new there), sacked him four times, and held the Saints offense to six first downs all game. You may not be sold on Darnold just yet, but this defense is legit. I’ll spare you the MC Hammer reference. But this Panthers defense is good, and they will only get stronger as the season progresses.
Believe it or not, there’s an excellent chance for the Panthers to be the last undefeated team standing in the NFL within the next few weeks. Their favorable schedule lines up perfectly for them still being undefeated halfway through the season. Look at the next six games on Carolina’s schedule:
- Week 3 @ Houston Texans
- Week 4 @ Dallas Cowboys
- Week 5 vs. Philadelphia Eagles
- Week 6 vs. Minnesota Vikings
- Week 7 @ New York Giants
- Week 8 @ Atlanta Falcons
I think it’s safe to say a 3-0 start for the Panthers is about 99.9 percent in the bag tonight on Thursday Night Football. Unless something goes terribly wrong against the Texans, this one shouldn’t be very close. Texans quarterback Davis Mills is making his first career start as Deshaun Watson continues to be sidelined as he faces 22 sexual misconduct lawsuits, so expect this Panthers defense to tee off on Mills early and often.
An 8-0 start for the Panthers isn’t beyond the realm of possibility. The biggest challenge to that happening will be next week in Dallas. If the Panthers can get past the Cowboys, that 8-0 start should be a cakewalk from there. The most brutal stretch of games for Carolina comes over the last four weeks of the season:
- Week 15 @ Buffalo Bills
- Week 16 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Week 17 @ New Orleans
- Week 18 @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Playing three of their final four games on the road will be challenging, as will two of those final games coming against the defending champion Buccaneers. Also, keep an eye on that Week 15 meeting with Buffalo. Right now, that game doesn’t have an official time or network listed on the schedule, and I’m thinking this could potentially be flexed into the Sunday night slot that week. Currently, SNF is scheduled to have the Saints and Buccaneers for Week 15. If the Saints are out of the playoff mix at that point, therefore, playing spoiler, I think NBC could flex this game out for Panthers-Bills if both teams are clearly in the hunt. Week 18 is also open for SNF. Panthers at Bucs, anyone? If the NFC South crown is on the line in that final showdown of the season, it is highly likely NBC grabs this one.
Considering the Panthers’ hot start, coupled with a seemingly easy schedule during the first half of the season, I’d have to say they look like a definite playoff contender in 2021. It seems like the Panthers could very well challenge Tom Brady and the Bucs for the division.
Apparently, that animated Panther mascot really lit a fire under this team. Hopefully, the team’s augmented-reality Panther returns before the team’s late-season matchups against the Bucs. I’m sure a video of the Panther snatching a kale smoothie out of Brady’s hand would have the home crowd in a frenzy.