Panthers give NFC a warning

Heading into this weekend, NFL teams had combined to score 6,211 points this year, the most ever after the first nine weeks of the season. Those 6,211 points break down to an average of 46.7 per game, a pace that would break the record set in 1948. Additionally, prior to Sunday, teams had scored 692 touchdowns, which broke the previous record for the first nine weeks of the season by 25 touchdowns.

So naturally, the best game of the weekend was one in which the Panthers and 49ers combined for just 19 points and scored just one touchdown in the entire game.

The energy inside Candlestick Park felt more like a playoff environment than a Week 10 regular-season game, and the heavyweight fight that played out on the field lived up to the hype.

I have called five of the Panthers games so far this season and have a pretty good handle about what this team is all about. But even I had my doubts about them being able to travel cross-country and beat a 49ers team that was ranked as the No. 1 rushing offense, the No. 5 scoring offense and the fourth-best scoring defense in the entire NFL. Sure, the Panthers’ four-game winning streak was an impressive feat, but let’s be honest, those four wins came against teams with a combined seven wins and the St. Louis Rams were the best of the bunch with a measly 3-6 record heading into the weekend.

Had you listened to my podcast last week, you would have heard Warren Sapp and me agree that the 49ers were quietly becoming the best team in the NFL and this game would provide the Panthers with the platform to prove they are truly a contender and announce themselves among the elite of the NFC.

Well, consider Sunday’s game as a warning shot across the bow because there is definitely a new power in the conference.

The 49ers entered the game on a five-game winning streak, but now it is the Panthers who hold the active five-game streak, their longest since winning six in a row in 2005. But it wasn’t just the win itself that was so impressive, it was how they went about getting it.

The Panthers entered the weekend having scored 30 or more points in four straight games, but they scored just 10 points on Sunday and won with a physical and opportunistic defense. The Panthers sacked Colin Kaepernick six times, picked him off once and held him to just 91 passing yards. More impressively, they held the league’s best rushing offense to just 105 yards on the ground, nearly 80 yards fewer than their per game average during the last five games.

The Panthers have arguably the best front seven in the NFL and have a lot of beef up the middle to keep blockers off their playmaking linebackers, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. If the 49ers have the best linebackers in the league with Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman, then the Panthers must have the second-best unit. Kuechly finished the game with 11 total tackles and recorded his first sack of the season, but even more impressive is his ability to cover tight ends. In my opinion, he is the best cover linebacker in the entire NFL, and that diversity makes him an invaluable asset. Thomas Davis had just five tackles in the game, but forced a critical fumble that was the Panthers’ first of two takeaways on the game that helped seal the one-point victory.

This defense is holding opponents to just 12.8 points per game this season and only 9.5 points per game in their six wins. They are ranked in the top three in nearly every major defensive category and are built to win games just like they did on Sunday. They have a three-headed rushing attack of their own, and really a fourth when you add Cam Newton to the mix. DeAngelo Williams gives them the explosive element (his 27-yard TD run just before the half ended up being the difference in the game), while Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert can come in and bang between the tackles as well as catch passes out of the backfield. Ideally, the Panthers would like Newton to get about 8-10 carries per game, even if only to keep defenses guessing on misdirection runs or in the play-action passing game.

But the Panthers aren’t without their weaknesses, most notably the guards along the offensive line. The Panthers have yet to find a steady replacement for Amini Silatolu, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Because of that injury, they have been rotating guards on either side of the line looking for the right combination. They started Nate Chandler on Sunday for the first time at right guard and while he showed some flashes, he was also beat up the middle in some negative plays for the Panthers offense.

This will be an ongoing experiment for the remainder of the season, but Cam Newton can make up for a lot of mistakes up front with his ability to elude defenders and make plays outside of the pocket.

The Panthers can’t afford to take a week off after their big win this weekend. Next up? The New England Patriots, who much like the 49ers, are getting healthy and starting to hit their stride this season. If they can back up this win with another against the Patriots, then it will no longer be just a warning shot across the bow; the league will be on full notice that the Panthers are just as dangerous as the Seahawks and the Saints in the NFC. There will be no more flying under the radar.