For the third week in a row, the Panthers dominate their opponent by scoring at least 30 points and not turning the ball over. Cam Newton was patient with the football and he turned out yet another great performance from the quarterback position. His play over the last three weeks have me wondering if this dude is a top five quarterback on the league, but more on that later. First we have to get into the details of this game.
Tampa Bay could not stop Carolina at the beginning of the game. On their opening drive the Panthers chewed 8:52 off the clock, ran 15 plays, and scored a touchdown. They went 4/4 on converting 3rd downs and the march was capped by a one yard touchdown lob from Newton to a wide open Greg Olsen. This play was remarkable in that Cam was basically dead to rights with Daniel Te’o-Nesheim bearing down on him. He managed to avoid an arm tackle and flick it to his big tight end right before he would have been plastered by linebacker Dekoda Watson. The strength showed by the Carolina quarterback on this play was impressive, as well as the awareness to spot Olsen all alone in the end zone. Tampa Bay was able to respond with a field goal on their next drive, helped by a 29 yard reception from Vincent Jackson and a 20 yard catch and run by running back Mike James. Unfortunately there was little they could do to prevent the Panthers from running the ball down the field for another score. Their next drive took them all of 3:42 and six plays before DeAngelo Williams ran it in from 12 yards out on a triple-option play. Other big plays on that drive included a 22 yard rumble by Mike Tolbert and a 35 yard catch and run by Ted Ginn Jr. on a 3rd and 3 situation. By now, the score was 14-3; 14 being all Carolina would need for the night to trump the listless Bucs.
After jumping out to a 14-3 lead and looking unstoppable on offense, the Tampa defense tightened up and pitched a shutout for the rest of the first half. They went into the half down 14-6 (which is technically a one score game). So for the time being their defense had kept the poorly performing offense in the game. However, they could not keep that up as the Panthers offense proved to be too much in the second half as they rattled off 17 unanswered points. Cam Newton ran for a touchdown and threw one to Mike Tolbert out in the flat. The P-dogs tacked on a field goal following a 4th and 10 failed attempt at a conversion by Tampa Bay on their own 16 yard line. The Bucs were able to hammer out one scoring drive at the end of the game (Glennon to Tim Wright for a 10 yard score), and recover an onside kick, but this one was over as soon as Carolina took the ball down the field on their second drive of the third quarter and made it a 21-6 game. The Buccaneers aren’t exactly lighting it up on offense, so a 15 point hole was something they could not climb out of when all was said and done.
As a positive for Tampa, Mike Glennon did not look terrible in his fourth NFL start, but I think it is safe to say that he has not improved all that much over that time span. The one good thing that can be said is that he has not thrown an interception since donating one to the waiting arms of Bradley Fletcher and the Eagles during their Week 6 clash (one that wasn’t really his fault if you ask this observer). Glennon was off with a few of his throws, but as a plus he did show great pocket awareness and some mobility. In fact, he reminds me of Philly’s Nick Foles in the sense that he can move around within the pocket, he does not make a lot of mental mistakes, and he is sneakily athletic and mobile for a big guy. It is possible that Tampa has a positive product at the quarterback position; they just need to groom him and give him some time. Think of the 2013 season as a honeymoon for Glennon. He will get a free pass as he tries to figure things out this year. However, if he does struggle then the Bucs will have a decent crop of quarterbacks to choose from in the 2014 draft. Right now they need to decide if Glennon is the guy going forward. That is the first step in rebuilding this Tampa Bay team.
The Panthers are looking like a fine team, As you probably know by now, I love their defense. They have one of the best front sevens in football and their back four, although ravaged by injuries, has held its own since the Giant game. Mike Mitchell (safety) has looked pretty strong over his last two weeks. He is flying around to the ball and making sure-tackles on the spot. Captain Munnerlyn (who came in fresh off of a pick-six against St. Louis) nearly had another one in this game. He buzzed in front of two Mike Glennon passes and had a chance to make two big plays on defense. As it turned out he was unable to make either, but it is encouraging to see him flying around the field and clogging up passing lanes. In addition to having a strong defense (one that has not let up a touchdown in the first half this season), they have an offense that is firing on all cylinders right now. Cam Newton is on fire, hitting on better than 75% of his passes over the last three weeks, accounting for eight total touchdowns (five through the air, three on the ground), and seemingly forgetting how to turn the ball over. As you can see, this team is very tough to beat when #1 isn’t careless with the football. In fact, when he isn’t turning it over, he is one of the better quarterbacks in the league today. I am teetering between him and Andrew Luck as a top five signal-caller. For now it is clear that Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers make the list, so that coveted fifth spot is up for grabs. I’m just saying it is hard to argue that Newton is not worthy to be in the conversation after what he has done over the past few weeks. He is playing football at the highest level of his career and his team is reaping the benefits by finding themselves with a record better than .500 for the first time since Week 17 of the 2008 season.
I think the Panthers can play with anyone when they are at their best. They have a legitimate shot to challenge the Saints for the NFC South division lead and may have a chance in the wild card race. The Rams, Vikings, Buccaneers, and Giants may not be the toughest of opponents to beat, but so far Carolina has pushed them aside like a kid would a steaming plate of spinach. The Panthers are beating the teams they should beat, and that is the difference between them this year than the guys from the last few seasons. Just think, they are a few plays away from being a 6-1 team. Ladies and gentlemen, the Carolina Panthers are for real and on Thursday Night Football, they arrived on the scene and they are quickly becoming one of the league’s must-watch teams.