Coaches often divide the NFL season into groups of four games, reducing the sixteen-game schedule into the more digestible pieces of a monthly slate. I never fully understood why they do this, but I guess it’s because four tiny seasons seem less daunting than one full-sized season. Like tapas, or something. In any event, following kicker Graham Gano’s rather nonchalant, last-second sixty-three-yard field goal to beat the Giants last Sunday, the Panthers are through the first course of their 2018 campaign and have emerged 3–1 and a half game behind the first-place Saints.

Three and one is a good start by any reasonable standard, and the Panthers can feel content with their place in the NFC pecking order heading into a winnable contest with the tragicomic Washington Redskins this coming Sunday. The Cats have been alternately lucky and good in their three victories over the Cowboys, Bengals, and Giants, mixing an improving offense with an opportunistic defense and the occasional nonchalant, sixty-three-yard last-second, game-winning field goal.

On offense, as ever, everything flows through Cam Newton, who shows signs of becoming more comfortable in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s scheme with each passing week. The thoroughly tenured Turner has wisely tailored his venerable attack to best take advantage of Newton’s unique skill set and physical attributes. Great as he is, the quarterback lacks the accuracy to make him a pure pocket passer of the sort Troy Aikman was when Turner made a star out of him, and with injuries up and down the offensive line, the Panthers don’t have the capacity to pass protect in that manner anyhow.

Instead, the team has sought ways to maximize the threat posed by Newton’s peerless running ability, while limiting his exposure to unnecessary punishment. This has meant plenty of misdirection in the form of play action and run-pass option plays with Newton pitching to Christian McCaffrey and C.J. Anderson on the edge, keeping it himself, or throwing downfield to an increasingly dangerous receiving corps consisting of D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel, and Devin Funchess.

The going was predictably slow in a grinding 16–8 week one victory over Dallas, but more and more signs have emerged that Tuner’s play-calling acumen and Newton’s force-of-nature physical tools and passionate leadership skills are primed to make defenses miserable league-wide. The team is currently averaging a respectable 26 points per game, but more importantly,  ranks first in the NFL with 154 rushing yards per contest, which allows them to dictate tempo and time of possession and eventually wear down teams in the physical style Coach Ron Rivera has long espoused. As offensive football goes, it isn’t flashy like the Rams and Chiefs, and sometimes it’s not even fun to watch. But it is an effective and sustainable approach that will remain viable as the cold weather and late season fatigue inevitably set in.

On defense, the Panthers’ front seven figured to be a major strength heading into the season, and by and large, that has been the case. Mario Addison and Kawann Short have been typically disruptive pass rushers, while stud linebackers Luke Kuechly and Shaq Thompson are tackling machines adept at both playing the run and patrolling the short passing game. The return of Thomas Davis this week from a PED suspension only improves one of the league’s best and deepest linebacking units.

The secondary always figured to be a work in progress and is coming off a week in which they were frequently torched by the geriatric-in-football-years Eli Manning, but there is reason to be encouraged here as well. First-year coordinator Eric Washington has been tasked with mixing and matching young talent with journeymen veterans nearing the end of their NFL journey, and has managed that challenge about as well as can be expected. Gifted rookie corner Donte Jackson has flashed the athleticism which made him the team’s second-round pick out of LSU with three interceptions in his first four starts, while thirty-seven-year-old safety Mike Adams picked off Manning twice on Sunday. The organization signed free agent safety Eric Reid—a Pro Bowler in San Francisco who has essentially been out of a job since protesting police brutality alongside Colin Kaepernick. He will provide help on the field as well as further demonstrating the relatively progressive vision of new owner David Tepper.

A month ago, we predicted that Carolina would be an 11-5 team with the capability of a deep playoff run. They remain flawed in certain areas, but they are improving, and nothing over the first quarter of the season suggests they are not capable of being in meaningful games come late January. They are essentially what we thought when the season began: physically imposing on both sides of the ball and more talented at the skill positions then has been the case in recent seasons.

And when all else fails, you can always kick a sixty-three-yard field goal.