The Carolina Panthers are still undefeated, though they've made things a little more interesting recently by allowing late comebacks.
They'll aim for a more complete performance as they try to continue their best start ever Sunday when they visit the Tennessee Titans.
Carolina (8-0) is one of three remaining unbeatens along with New England and Cincinnati and owns a two-game advantage over three teams for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. Though three of their next four games are on the road, the schedule looks extremely navigable. Those four teams, including Tennessee (2-6), are a combined 11-22. The Panthers have three remaining games against opponents over .500, playing Atlanta twice and visiting the New York Giants on Dec. 20.
They've developed a habit of letting teams back into games, however. They surrendered a 17-point fourth-quarter edge to Indianapolis in Week 8 before winning 29-26 in overtime, and led Green Bay by 23 in the fourth quarter last Sunday but only won 37-29 after Thomas Davis' goal-line interception with two minutes left.
Carolina owns a slim 55-54 edge in fourth-quarter points and its average margin of victory (7.9) ranks 21st. Meanwhile, the Titans are fresh off an 11-point comeback of their own in last week's 34-28 overtime win at New Orleans, snapping a six-game losing streak.
“We've just got to clean a lot of things up,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “It wasn't a pretty eight (wins), but it is eight and that's gorgeous in itself.”
Newton has accounted for 19 total TDs, putting him on pace for a new career high. He threw for 297 yards and three TDs while running nine times for 57 yards and another score against the Packers, the 29th game in which he's scored through the air and on the ground. That trails only Steve Young (31) for the most all-time, though Newton has done it in 70 starts compared to Young's 143.
He's directing a team that is averaging 28.5 points, which ranks fourth in the NFL and would surpass the 1999 franchise record (26.3).
The Panthers' defense has also been worthy of praise, allowing the league's second-fewest yards per play (4.8) and lowest opponents' passer rating (68.9).
Josh Norman has emerged as one of the league's elite corners in his fourth season. His four interceptions are tied for the NFC lead while his 13 pass deflections are tied for the second-most in the NFL. He's conceded only 21 completions on 54 targets – the lowest percentage allowed (38.9) by any defensive player targeted more than 21 times.
“Josh has been tremendous for us,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He has really stepped up and made plays and I think his teammates feed off his energy when he makes plays.”
The Titans have won three straight meetings, including a 30-3 road victory in 2011 in Newton's rookie year.
Tennessee's star rookie quarterback returned against the Saints, as Marcus Mariota was 28 of 39 for 371 yards and four TDs after missing two games with a knee injury. He's the league's first rookie to throw for four TDs with no interceptions twice, also doing so in his debut against Tampa Bay.
Mariota's 13 TD passes are already a franchise rookie record, and his 101.5 passer rating could threaten the NFL record by a first-year player – 102.4 by Robert Griffin III in 2012.
He seemed to benefit from interim coach Mike Mularkey's tweaks to the offensive line and an emphasis on getting the ball out of his hands more quickly. Mariota, who was 6 for 6 for 62 yards in overtime, wasn't sacked after being taken down 19 times in his first five games.
“He's a real tough kid,” said tight end Anthony Fasano, who caught the game-winning TD pass. “We respect him. As one of the younger guys he's still one of the leaders. We're glad to have him back.”
Antonio Andrews is emerging as the bell cow in the Tennessee backfield, running 35 times the last two weeks for 152 yards, though rookie David Cobb could become a factor as well. The Titans activated Cobb from injured reserve-designated to return Wednesday after he had been out since August with a calf injury. The fifth-round pick ran for 1,629 yards and 13 TDs as a senior at Minnesota.
The Titans have lost nine straight home games, their worst such skid since moving to Tennessee.
The Panthers have won a franchise-record 12 consecutive regular-season games.
- Anthony Fasano
- Antonio Andrews
- Cam Newton
- Carolina Panthers
- David Cobb
- Josh Norman
- Marcus Mariota
- Robert Griffin III
- Tennessee Titans
- Thomas Davis