By Michael Brennan
It wasn’t beautiful, but the Carolina Panthers (6-9) have won their third straight game. In a game that featured malicious hits and 16 total penalties, the Panthers mustered a 17-6 victory over the Palmer-less Oakland Raiders (4-11).
Quarterback Carson Palmer was helped off the field by trainers in the first quarter with an apparent rib injury – Palmer took a hit from defensive end Greg Hardy and did not return. Palmer’s replacement, Matt Leinart, was ineffective despite seeing more playing time that he has seen in quite a few years. Leinart completed only 16 of his 32 passes for 115 yards and an interception.
The Carolina defense was as impressive as it has been all season long. The Panthers held Oakland to only 189 total yards, 33 of which were accumulated by Darren McFadden despite 17 carries. Every week the play of the defense has been elevated, in large part thanks to the outstanding performance by middle line backer, Luke Kuechly. Kuechly continues to state his case for Defensive Rookie of the Year. On Sunday, he had a team-high 13 tackles and an interception. He has been dynamic since he replaced Jon Beason on the inside and leads not only his team, but the entire NFL in total tackles.
Despite being consumed by injuries, the defense has come into its own in the last few weeks – allowing an average of 11 points a game in their last three games.
On the offensive side of the ball, Cam Newton and the rest of the Panther offense has also found their stride. Newton connected with Steve Smith in the first quarter for a touchdown, Smith’s third of the year. Newton completed 18 of his 29 passes for 170 yards with one touchdown and one interception – It was the first time in six games that Newton has turned the ball over. In that stretch, Newton has been unstoppable – accounting for 15 touchdowns and only one turnover, compiling over 1,800 yards on the ground and through the air.
Carolina, however, continues to lack a threat in the backfield. If the Panthers learn anything from their sloppy win over the Raiders, it should be that their read-option runs and dual backfield will not continue to be successful.
Cam Newton is always a threat to run, but teams have successfully shut down the option for backs like DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert to run all season. Considering their contracts, it’s critical to mention that not one of the three backs (Tolbert, Williams, Stewart) have run for over 100 yards in a game this season. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how the Panthers handle their backfield as the offseason approaches.
Carolina will play in New Orleans next week to wrap up their season. For fans and players, what may seem like déjà vu is actually just an ironic twist of fate for Carolina. At this point in the season, last season, Carolina had the exact same record going in to New Orleans to face the Saints. The Panthers lost handily and used their disappointment to fuel the effort in to next season. This time around, experiencing the same result would more than likely cost Ron Rivera his job and send the Panthers in to the offseason searching for answers. There is no doubt that Sunday will prove to be a physical, hard-fought game between the two teams.