The Carolina Panthers were not supposed to be this good.
The team that FiveThirtyEight.com projected for 9.2 wins before the start of the season is undefeated and sitting atop the NFC South with seven wins, one and a half ahead of the second place Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers lost their biggest offensive threat before the season started, Kelvin Benjamin, and yet have not missed a beat, improving dramatically on their 2014-2015 campaign.
You might expect the reason for their significant improvement to be spurred by an inspired Cam Newton, but that is not the case. While Newton as been every bit the leader he has always been, he is in the midst of one of his worst seasons of his career. He ranks 26th in the NFL in QBR this season, and Football Outsiders measures him as the 24th ranked QB in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value over Average).
Yes, Newton is making big plays when he needs to and turning would-be sacks into positive plays, but he is not why Carolina has turned the corner.
Carolina has turned the corner by giving Newton, and the passing game, the support they have always needed. The running game, which ranked 16th last season in efficiency, is 3rd best this season, averaging 144 yards per game on 4.3 yards per carry. The defense, which was good last season, is now great. Their strength is against the pass attack, where they rank 2nd in the league, improving on their 9th best rating last season. It has been everyone around Cam, and not Cam himself, that has made the difference.
Maybe the player who deserves the most credit, at least on the defensive side of the ball, is cornerback Josh Norman. Norman has been in the national spotlight this season as a shutdown cornerback, but it was last season that solidified Norman as one of the league’s best. Norman was targeted 62 times last season in 10 games, thrown at 24.8 percent of the time. While he may have been thrown to quite a bit, he allowed only 5.1 adjusted yards per attempt, 4th best in the league, according to Football Outsiders. His success rate, which is the share of targets on which the corner prevented a successful gain, was ranked 4th best, behind the likes of Darrelle Revis, Vontae Davis, and Chris Harris and one spot ahead of Richard Sherman.
Norman is acutely aware of the challenges Green Bay's QB Aaron Rodgers poses this week, telling ESPN, "I'm sitting back there watching film on this guy and the stuff he's able to do, man, I'm going to have to plaster all night and not take any plays off."
Rodgers tipped his cap to Norman in his own press conference, acknowledging his impact on the field. "Well, Josh Norman didn't play that game and he is a difference-maker on the outside," Rodgers said when asked the difference in the Panthers now. "There are a few corners in the league who are like him where you have to be aware of where they are at, how they are playing and what type of coverage they are playing and try not to throw them the football."
Rodgers will hope that the drop off from the first to the second best defense is immense, because last week the Broncos stifled Rodgers and the offense. Rodgers threw for only 77 yards that game, 50 net yards after subtracting for sacks. To put it into perspective, Rodgers had not passed for less than 189 yards in any game this season and had thrown at least one touchdown in every game.
Part of Rodgers issues stem from the absence of Jordy Nelson, who was lost for the season before Week 1. Rodgers, and his opposition, have keyed in on wide receiver Randall Cobb and the increased focus on Cobb has the wide receiver on pace for his worst season as a pro. After amassing 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, Cobb is only on pace for 862 yards and is yet to score. The Packers need to be more creative this week and find ways to get Cobb into space and use his shiftiness in the open field.
Tough break for Green Bay to be on the road two weeks in a row against the likes of Denver and then Carolina. They are considered slight favorites Sunday, but Denver revealed the method for slowing down the Packer offense and Carolina has the personnel to mimic what Denver did. This should be close to the final whistle, but expect Carolina to outlast Green Bay and remain undefeated.