CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What the Carolina Panthers seek will not be accomplished by beating the Atlanta Falcons. Wins over the Buccaneers, Giants, Vikings and Rams won’t do it, either.
The Panthers’ immediate goal involves ‘relevance’ and none of the NFL talking heads are willing to give to Carolina just yet
The skepticism with the Panthers being viable playoff contenders comes from the quality of opponent — or lack thereof — during the club’s four-game winning streak (Vikings, Rams, Bucs, Falcons). The middling teams have combined records of 7-27, and that doesn’t go a long way toward building up Carolina’s case of legitimacy.
“The only thing that motivates us is we want to be relevant — Whether we’re being slighted [right now] or not,” said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. “We understand to be relevant you have to win football games in this league, and that’s our approach.
“We want to be relevant and we want to be in the conversation. Every time they turn on the TV and talk about teams in the playoff hunt, we want to be part of that.”
Sunday’s road matchup against the 6-2 49ers represents the Panthers’ shot to make a statement and enter that conversation. A win clearly proves this team belongs among the NFL’s elite; it might even alarm the Saints that the NFC South race is hardly in doubt.
“It’ll be a big-time statement. It’ll really solidify us putting our name in the hat that we’re here to say something this season,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “We gotta take care of business, though. They went to the Super Bowl last year so this is the game where you want to measure yourself up. This is a very good team and one a lot of people are talking about. If we can knock them off, they gotta throw us in the hat.”
Not many predicted Panthers-49ers to be one of Week 10’s premier games earlier in the season. San Francisco lost back-to-back games in Weeks 2 and 3, but have since reeled off five straight — with scoring averages of 35 points per game during that span.
It’s worth noting: The 49ers like the Panthers, didn’t beat anyone with a winning record during that stretch.
“There’s a lot of parity in this league,” Rivera said. “People don’t realize it’s very hard in this league to win because there’s a lot of good football players in this league, and sometimes you gotta get the bounces.”
Of course, the 49ers haven’t been subjected to the same early-season skepticism of the Panthers, given San Fran’s recent Super Bowl appearance (losing to Baltimore in the final moments) and falling to elite clubs Seattle and Indianapolis (both on the road) in September.
The Panthers have yet to earn the league-wide benefit of the doubt, even with a margin of victory of 20.5 points over the last four games.
For what it’s worth, Carolina could easily be 7-1 to date, if it hadn’t committed a crucial fumble in a season-opening loss to Seattle, or failed to close out Buffalo two months ago.
“The mark of a good team is a team that wins the games they’re supposed to win and games that they’re not supposed to win,” said running back Mike Tolbert. “People say we’re not supposed to win this one, so we’re going to go out and try to prove them wrong.”
For his part, Rivera continues to preach the one game at a time mantra when it comes to playoff talk, but he admittedly believes he has a postseason-worthy club on his hands.
“I think we can be a playoff team because of the things we’ve done and because of the way were playing. We have a great opportunity, great challenge,” Rivera said. “The chances can be limitless, but we have to play that way. Just because we’re doing it right now doesn’t mean it’s automatic. The next biggest challenge we have is San Francisco.”
That challenge relies on an eerily similar blueprint.
Wide receiver Ted Ginn was in San Francisco last year and draws favorable comparisons between last season’s 49ers and the current Panthers. The similarities: Mobile quarterbacks, elite front sevens and powerful running games behind veteran downhill backs.
Both clubs like to use the run to set up the pass. The 49ers rank 32nd in passing (189.9 yards per game) and 1st in rushing (153 yards). The less extreme Panthers rank 25th in passing (202.6 yards) but 8th in rushing (130.1 yards).
The similarities abound on defense, as well, with the Panthers and 49ers ranking second and fourth in scoring defense, respectively.
“Absolutely,” Tolbert said, when asked if he agrees with Ginn’s team comparisons. “Their running game is really good, our running game is really good. Their defense is really good, our defense is really good.
“Obviously, the quarterback similarities, but I think that where were going to get our edge is on special teams.”
Newton has largely tried to avoid comparisons with other young quarterbacks, but he and Colin Kaepernick were roommates at the 2011 NFL Combine, while both operating out of read-option systems.
By design, the Panthers have restricted their number of read-option looks, as a means of preserving Newton’s health. But their defense, which has plenty of experience with that system, either in practice or when facing Seattle’s Russell Wilson, should be comfortable with Kaepernick on Sunday.
“Just the angles and pursuit and keeping him in the pocket day in and day out helps the muscle memory and the mindset going into it,” said defensive end Greg Hardy. “But I feel like we’ve faced a lot of guys like that. This week shouldn’t be any different.”
For the Panthers, they’re looking forward to their first road trip against an above-.500 opponent. And from a national standpoint, it’s the first time in five years they’ve been associated with perhaps the most important game of the week.
The Panthers’ four-win streak clearly prove they’re headed in the right direction. But does it have any bearing on immediate playoff contention?
The answer to that question likely awaits on Sunday.
“It’s a big time statement game,” Hardy said. “It’s a credit to our team, our defense, and the work we’ve put in and the rocks and the mountains we’ve had to climb to get here.”