Do you hear it? Do you hear the sound of the Cats gaining momentum? It may not be the jet-engine-loud, high-octane roar of the Chiefs and Saints and their sundry aerial carnivals. It may not be the efficient hum of the Patriots’ stately Cadillac or the tricked-out muscle car of the Johnny-come-lately Rams. But if you listen closely, you can hear it. All scuttling claws and gleaming eyes and coiled tendons, hanging back furtively, stalking their prey.
“Aha!” you say. “The Panthers girl from the INDY has gone insane. She thinks they are actual cats.” I can accept that. But can you accept how good this team might be? How about this for a proposition: Is tonight’s matchup against the Steelers the potential Super Bowl preview no one is talking about?
When the Panthers take the field in Pittsburgh tonight, they will be sporting a 6–2 record and a nifty three-game win streak after throttling Tampa Bay for most of last Sunday’s contest. Having staked themselves to a 35–7 first-half lead with a dazzling display of offensive firepower, the Panthers eventually let Ryan Fitzpatrick and his enchanted follicles close to within a touchdown before tacking on a late score to ice the game at 42–28. The letdown was understandable in context and not terribly concerning. The major takeaway is that this team is rapidly becoming unstoppable on offense.
The Panthers averaged 5.6 yards per carry while accumulating 179 yards on the ground. Christian McCaffrey has become a dependably dynamic force on offense, gaining seventy-nine yards and two touchdowns on the ground and another seventy-eight yards through the air on five catches. He now finds himself in competition with fellow NFC South dynamo Alvin Kamara for the best dual-threat option in the league. McCaffrey increasingly appears to be precisely the weapon the Panthers were hoping for when they took him in the first round of the draft two seasons ago.
Do you know who is happy? Cam Newton is happy, as he should be. When he mused following the game that “the talent level we have on this team is extremely scary” he wasn’t merely flexing or attempting to pump up his teammates. He was simply stating an obvious point: With the emergence of McCaffrey, the return of Greg Olsen, and the playmaking abilities of D.J. Moore, Devin Funchess, and Curtis Samuel, there are scarcely enough footballs to go around.
What a contrast this represents from last season, when the quarterback so frequently was forced to invent yards out of whole cloth under previous offensive coordinator Mike Shula. Over the course of the four years that Shula directed the offense, Newton became so accustomed to having to shoulder a dangerous amount of the workload that he must regard his surfeit of weapons and the diverse and imaginative attack implemented by new coordinator Norv Turner as a near-mystical turn of events. For the first time since his storied tenure in Charlotte began, the team has prioritized offense alongside defense, and the results are approaching revelatory.
How good this team really is will be put to the test against something like its AFC mirror image. The Steelers are prolific on offense and similarly led by a huge and resourceful future Hall of Famer in Ben Roethlisberger. Even absent their hold-out star running back Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh is loaded with stars at the skill positions with Antonio Brown, Ju-Ju Smith-Schuster, and Bell’s ascendant replacement James Connor all capable of breaking a long gain at any time. Following some uncharacteristic early struggles, Mike Tomlin’s perennially leather-tough defense has rounded into form during a recent four-game winning streak. The 5–2–1 Steelers are on a heater after playing quite possibly their best game of the season last Sunday, an emphatic 23–16 road win against the Ravens.
Part of what makes the NFL so aggravatingly addicting is that sometimes you just don’t know. A road game against a fine team on a short week is no easy task, and there is every reason to believe that Vegas is right in making the Steelers a three-and-a-half-point favorite. And yet, I can see a scenario where a too-physical Panthers offense makes a statement to the entire league and imposes its will in a non-conference game that could well be revisited come February. If the Panthers’ front seven can consistently pressure Roethlisberger and force him into check-downs to Connor and Vance McDonald, they have a chance to create long fields and avoid the big-play strikes that have been the Steelers’ stock and trade. I believe that’s not only possible but likely. It will probably come down to the final series, but take the Cats and the three and a half. And listen to the growling grow.
Next Game: Carolina Panthers (6–2) at Pittsburgh Steelers (5–2–1)
Where To See It: Fox/Amazon Prime/NFL Network 8:20 p.m.
Odds: Pittsburgh –3.5
Prediction: Panthers 28–26