So, the team that I have been really paying attention to, as well as greatly impressed with, lately would be the Carolina Panthers.
Why? Because they remind me of some of the great defensive teams in the past. Most especially, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who rode a record-smashing defense to their first ever Super Bowl championship.
I'm sure you're scratching your head right now, and thinking, "Wait a minute You're comparing these Panthers to the Super Bowl champion Ravens of 2000? In a year when high flying offenses seem to be the norm, and are definitely the headline grabbers?"
That's right. These Panthers have a killer defensive unit. As a Giants fan, I witnessed that firsthand, when the normally prolific Giants offense was bullied and beaten down, eventually losing 38-0, in a game where they were outplayed in every facet of the game.
And the Panthers at that point were struggling! They entered that game with an 0-2 record, and would follow that up with a 22-6 loss at Arizona.
So, why would I compare them with a team that many felt was the greatest defensive unit in the history of the game?
Because these Panthers have stormed back with a vengeance, winning eight straight since that abysmal 1-3 start. Moreover, because during that eight game stretch, they have only allowed a team to reach 20 points - and only 20 points- once. And that was the New England Patriots! They also beat the 49ers in San Francisco, and held Seattle to 12 points in a season opening loss, which is the lowest point total that the mighty Seahawks have been held to. The Panthers could potentially hold their collective opponents to under 200 points total, which only a handful of elite defenses have managed to do in a 16-game season.
Plus, they have a dynamic quarterback in Cam Newton, who could kill you with his arm, but also has plenty of mobility to add that element of unpredictability and potential explosiveness on offense. In a five game stretch earlier this season, they scored at least 30 points five times! On average, they are beating opponents by over ten points, and they seem to be getting better as the season goes along. They just have the feel of a team that is putting it all together at precisely the right moment to make a run throughout the playoffs.
Now, here's the thing: they have a very tough opponent in their division, and have still two full meetings against them in their schedule. The Saints and the panthers will meet twice - first next week, at New Orleans. Then, a few weeks later, they will meet again in Carolina. So, those are two huge games, and that uncertainty is the reason that I am holding off on proclaiming the Panthers as my de facto favorite to upset the Seahawks in Seattle, and represent the NFC in this year's Super Bowl.
Still, I think this team is better, and I mean far, better, than most people realize. And if the Saints should happen to lose tomorrow at Seattle, and then the Panthers manage to knock the Saints off in New Orleans next weekend, then it would be hard to imagine the Panthers not earning that valuable playoff bye, and having a real shot at the Super Bowl.
All the elements are there, it seems. And all I am really saying is that, right now, Carolina looks like a team that I'd be willing to put some money on, judging from what they have done so far.
But, of course, they still have to play the Saints - twice! And the season is far from over, and that leaves uncertainty. There could be injuries, they could lose badly to the Saints, who suddenly expose a weakness that did not seem to be there before. It's too early to make assured Super Bowl predictions just yet. But right now, I am more than a little impressed with what they are doing, and it leads me to suspect that where they are going might be considerably further than I first imagined!
In any case, the Panthers smothered the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday. Tampa Bay had entered the game on a hot streak, with three straight wins, but they were no match for Carolina, who won easily, 27-6, in what can only be considered a complete performance, thus keeping the pressure on the more flashy and famous New Orleans Saints.
In the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs were able to host another big showdown against the Denver Broncos, following their loss a couple of weeks ago which, at the time, was their first loss. But in an exciting, rather back and forth game (once again), the Broncos emerged victorious (yet again) to really assume control in the AFC West race.
The New England Patriots are nipping at the heels of the Denver Broncos, but they almost slipped up bad and were flirting with a major upset loss at Houston. But Brady and his bunch were able to pull through in an exciting and high scoring game, eventually outlasting the Texans, 34-31, and handing Houston their tenth straight loss in a row. I know I've said it before, but it is truly staggering to think that, just a couple of months or so ago, the Texans were considered serious Super Bowl contenders. Now, they look like they could get the first pick in the draft. What a dramatic reversal of fortunes!
Speaking of dramatic reversals of fortunes, the Falcons had a sizable lead in the NFC Championship Game last season, and looked to be in position to make a serious run again this season. Instead, they entered the game against Buffalo at 2-9, and had long ago ceased to be relevant in the NFC playoff picture. I'll admit to making a bet in favor of the Bills here, figuring that the Falcons were done, and the prospects of winning a game in an outdoor stadium in Buffalo in December were dire, particularly against a team that I always assumed was better than their record would indicate, and still were fighting for a chance, however slim, at making the playoffs.
But I was wrong, and the Falcons eventually outlasted the Bills in overtime, in a game that was back and forth. Buffalo seemed to be rolling early, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and seeming to be in command. But the Falcons finally showed a glimpse of what they were last season, and fought back, eventually managing to tie it all up. The Bills would take the lead, then the Falcons would tie it up. Over and over, this was the pattern.
Buffalo seemed to have a chance to wrap it up and get the "W" towards the end of regulation. They were heading towards field goal position, which would have been enough. But a costly turnover gave the Falcons another chance. They forced overtime, and finally managed to clinch it with a field goal of their own. And my best was lost.
Indianapolis has been an up and down team, showing remarkable inconsistency throughout the season. It was hard to tell at times whether the Colts were the team that were seemingly bordering on being one of the elites, when the beat teams like Denver, San Francisco, and Seattle, or the team that kept losing inexplicably to teams that they seemingly should be able to beat.
But this weekend, they had a huge game with monumental implications within the division, as they hosted the Tennessee Titans. And, they got the job done, effectively wrapping up the AFC North with a seemingly insurmountable lead, and a relatively easy schedule remaining. I expect them to be the third seed in the AFC playoffs, ahead of the Bengals, but unable to challenge the Broncos or the Patriots for one of the top two spots, and a playoff bye. Still, they looked pretty damn good this weekend, and now seem to be in good position with the playoffs nearing.
In a battle of serious NFC playoff contenders, the visiting Arizona Cardinals played well, but were eventually sent down to defeat in Philadelphia, as the Eagles kept pace with the Cowboys for the NFC East title.
The Cincinnati Bengals managed to stay atop of the AFC North by grinding out a tough road win at San Diego. The 49ers hung on for a solid win against the St. Louis Rams. In a big AFC East showdown between two playoff contenders, the visiting Miami Dolphins completely shut down the New York Jets, bringing the Jets that much closer to the brink of elimination, after a promising start to the season. The Jaguars knocked off the Browns in Cleveland.
The Bears lost a costly game in Minnesota, in overtime, squandering a sizable lead for much of the game. With the Detroit Lions lopsided victory over the Packers on Thanksgiving Day, it gives the Lions sole possession of first place in the NFC North, and a very decent shot at being able to wrap up the division if they play their cards right.
In the other two Thanksgiving Day match ups, the Ravens held on in an intensely close game against their division rival Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Cowboys pulled off a come from behind victory against the Oakland Raiders.