Panthers Aftermath: Panthers vs. Jets

With their victory over the New York Jets Sunday the Carolina Panthers have strung together a six-game winning streak, dominating both sides of the ball. Which generates this question: Are the Panthers really that good?

FIRST AND TEN

The short answer is "yes."

But they weren't that good at the beginning of the season. New personnel on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary, combined with a key injury to Kris Jenkins, created uncertainty on the field and it showed as Carolina stumbled to a 1-2 record.

What followed was a run of three maybe-shouda-lost victories, sandwiched around a timely bye week, and a three-game coming out party that validated Sports Illustrated's Super Bowl claim.

As poorly as they played in the beginning, the Panthers were as lucky in the middle of the current 9-game run. As lucky as they were in the middle, they were equally good at the end.

Now, the Panthers are poised at the threshold of greatness.

They've evolved from a poor, lucky, good team to a damn good team with aspiration of being the best professional football team in the world.

None of us fans are stupid enough to think that Panthers greatness will guarantee wins. A tough schedule lies ahead and there's always the specter of the Atlanta Falcons hanging over the franchise, so the prospects of even a darn good team can go sour faster than Brooks Bollinger's job security.

But the Panthers have that look about them. They appear…competent, for lack of a better term.

I'll take competence over confidence any day.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

* The Panthers averaged 2.8 yards per carry on 36 attempts against the Jets. That's bad and I could care less because they're winning. They run successfully when they have to and that's enough.

* Seeing Dan Morgan sitting on the field in considerable pain, I thought, "Uh, oh. Dan's done it now." But I asked a buddy about shoulder separations and he said it smarts like hell when it gets hit but the pain goes away rather shortly.

* When did Brad Hoovers start wearing Karl "hands-of-steel" Hankton's jersey?

* I think DeShaun Foster is proving that he is more than a finesse running back. If he can hold on to the ball, he may get Lucas-type money from someone next summer.

* The Panthers have found their tight end, provided Michael Gaines keeps his head out of the clouds.

* To me, this is the most impressive stat: 3 penalties for 25 yard.

* Again, Carolina proves that it will crush inferior quarterback play.

* Brooks Bollinger, I think, did okay and could be a decent backup quarterback. But I believe he had difficulty Sunday seeing the field due to his lack of height (which I think might be Stefan Lefors' career-long challenge). As long as Bollinger had a clear passing lane, he made the throw.

* Good to see Kindal Moorehead suck up the pain and contribute with 3 tackles and one of Carolina's 3 sacks.

* Keary Colbert should see his numbers leap the last half of the season if teams continue to smother Steve Smith like the Jets did.

* Rod Gardner has not yet earned a future in Charlotte. He's not even a credible decoy.

* Despite his mistakes on special teams, Justin Miller will be an outstanding corner with the Jets for years to come. He reminds me of Ronde Barber.

* Jets LB Jonathan Vilma is quicker than I imagined he would be.

* 4 p.m. games suck. They always have, always will, and I will always gripe about them.

* Caught John Fox smiling again early on in the third quarter for the third week in a row. Maybe Carolina should just keep on winning coin tosses if it's going to make Fox smile so much.

FOURTH AND GOAL

The Panthers are still vulnerable to a team that can run. The Jets lacked a complimentary passing attack Sunday and that killed the effectiveness of their running game. Of course, the turnovers didn't help. But New York showed that a strong running game can put the Panthers' coaching staff in damage-control mode. Do that for an entire game and the Panthers can be beaten.

Running teams like Chicago, Atlanta and New Orleans match up better against Carolina's defensive scheme because so much of that scheme relies on gap responsibility of the front four and the ability of the same front four to get pressure on the quarterback. Opponent success with the run is fatiguing and places stress on other parts of the defense.

The result is bag-play potential through the air and less margin for error when Carolina's offense takes the field.

I like the balance the Panthers have developed. It's what made the paltry 2.8 yards per carry work in the overall recipe for victory against the Jets on Sunday.

But run defense remains an area of concern in my mind, despite the Panthers' league ranking.

TOUCHDOWN

One key element to the Panthers' six-game winning streak is overall team health. Carolina has more quality depth at key positions than they've had in past seasons. Yet an injury to someone like linebacker Dan Morgan or wideout Steve Smith could throw the delicate balance Carolina has developed out of whack – perhaps permanently.

So remaining healthy is key to the team's future success.

Another key element to Carolina's ultimate goal of winning a world championship, and one not often addressed by the media, is the quality of leadership when times get tough.

The Panthers are blessed, quite deliberately so I might add, with superb veteran leadership. Safety Mike Minter is a rock in the locker room and on the field now that he doesn't have to baby-sit his secondary mates like he was forced to do last year. Ken Lucas has emerged as a reliable barometer for the defense.

The offensive line is led by one of the league's finest in Mike Wahle and the rest of the offense takes its cues from natural leaders Jake Delhomme and Steve Smith.

The coaching staff is finally beginning to show its stripes and the front office continues to do the right things.

Staying healthy is tantamount to ultimate success for these Panthers. Yet it is the quality of the veteran leadership the franchise possesses that qualifies it as a great football team.

The amount of quality leadership is the difference between today's Panthers and the enigmatic bunch that went to the Super Bowl in '03 - and why I think they'll push through to the title this season.

So the answer is yes. The Carolina Panthers are that good.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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