The Carolina Panthers have won the NFC South two years running, something that hadn’t been done since the division came into being in 2002. That would have seemed a greater feat had last season’s title been taken with a winning record.
As of Dec. 6, 2014, the Panthers had played 11 games and won three. They would finish 7-8-1 and make the playoffs and actually win a game there, although the team they beat (Arizona) was down to its No. 3 quarterback. Carolina was very good in 2013 — it went 12-4 — but last year it was a division champ only because it was based in the worst division ever. As such, I didn’t rate the Panthers all that highly coming into the new season.
Time to change that appraisal. The Panthers are 5-0. Their first four victories were over bad teams — Jacksonville, Houston, New Orleans and Tampa Bay — but their fifth was an eye-opener. They went to Seattle and won 27-23 after trailing 23-14. Granted, the Seahawks aren’t the mighty assemblage they’ve been the past three seasons and are clearly missing Dan Quinn, now coaching an NFL team near you, but still: You win in Seattle, you make a point.
That NFL team near you — the Atlanta Falcons — caught a flying start under the aforementioned Quinn and is 5-1. Given the weakness of the Falcons’ remaining schedule, they’re apt to win 11 or 12 games and make the playoffs. But Carolina’s schedule is only slightly more challenging, which means the Panthers are apt to crack double figures in wins, too. Both Atlanta and Carolina figure to qualify for postseason. Only one can get a first-round bye as division champ.
Here’s who the Falcons have left: Tennessee there, Tampa Bay here, San Francisco there, Indianapolis here, Minnesota here, Tampa Bay there, Carolina there, Jacksonville there, Carolina here, New Orleans here.
Here’s who the Panthers have left: Philadelphia home, Indianapolis home, Green Bay home, Tennessee away, Washington home, Dallas away, New Orleans away, Atlanta home, N.Y. Giants away, Atlanta away, Tampa Bay home.
There’s nothing on the Falcons’ remaining schedule that compares with that three-game run — Eagles/Colts/Packers — Carolina is about to face. (The first is on Sunday night, the second on Monday night.) Still, all three will be played in Charlotte. Should the Panthers be 7-1 after the Green Bay game, they’ll be in great shape. Should they be 8-0, they’ll be in greater-than-great shape.
I’d still favor the Falcons because they’ve negotiated the entire NFC East already — going unbeaten! — and because they don’t play the Packers. But I also believe this has the makings of a terrific division race. As opposed, say, to last year’s division race.