With the possible exception of the Arizona Cardinals, the Carolina Panthers are the least discussed division leader in the NFL. So who are these Cats from Charlotte?
At quarterback, Jake Delhomme, despite his whining ways, has made plays in the 4th quarter, per his reputation. He has now piloted fifteen fourth-quarter and overtime game-winning drives, the last two after being only the second NFL QB to get Tommy John surgery. In the backfield, the Panthers feature a two-headed attack of DeAngelo Williams and the talented rookie, Jonathan Stewart. Stewart was instrumental in the second half of the comeback win against the Bears, and appears to be back from the toe injury that hurt his draft status. On the edges, the Panthers feature one of the deepest receiving corps in the league. The addition of Steve Smith gives Carolina the ability to stretch the field, and Delhomme gets his favorite target back. For the first time in several years, the offensive line has stabilized. First round pick Jeff Otah at right tackle has been blocking opponents into the third row, and moving Travelle Wharton from LT to LG has been key to the team's success in both the running and passing game. They have given up only four sacks in two games, against San Diego and Chicago who were 5th and 6th in team sacks last year. The Panthers improved their personnel in all offensive areas from last year to this year, and with offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson getting comfortable calling plays for the re-tooled squad, the balanced attack should grow more lethal.
The unfortunate suckerpunch of Ken Lucas appears to have galvanized the defense. Young Jon Beason (pictured), the best young middle linebacker east of San Francisco, is the undisputed leader and has brought the Miami swagger to the Carolina D. Fellow LB Thomas Davis was been moved to the weak side, freeing him up to chase down plays with his tremendous speed. Up front, newcomer Tyler Brayton has had minimal impact at the DE position, but Julius Peppers has returned to his status of demanding a double team, even if he is yet to record a sack. In the secondary, CBs Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas have been playing as well as they did in the 2005 season, when the team went to the NFC championship game. S Chris Harris continues to wreak havoc, causing two fumbles and only Beason has recorded more tackles. The defense has been stout, and most important, they have been making plays at critical times.
Special Teams has been a sore point in recent years, and an area that continues to need attention.The lone original Panther, K John Kasay is six for six on field goals, but they punt team did get a kick blocked (for a TD). Punt returns have been minimal thus far, and kick returns average at best, but the good news is they've held the opponents to comparable numbers.
Entering this season Head Coach John Fox and GM Marty Hurney knew their jobs were on the line. After two disappointing years, the natives were restless. The team has responded with their first home-opening win since 2003, and with a favorable first half schedule, the Panthers should be no worse than 6-2 heading into their bye week. With games against two of the other current NFC division leaders, the team will have an opportunity to directly control their playoff seed. The possibility of a playoff home game is alive and well, and depending on the parity in the NFC East, the chance for the number one seed isn't out of the question. It's early to try to determine seeding, but anything less than making the playoffs will be a disappointment and will cue the Bill Cowher rumors. Fortunately for Panther fans, they have one of the most well-rounded teams in the NFC that should be playoff bound, not too bad for a team that remains largely overlooked.