With a 5–2 record and coming off a startling 36–21 undressing of the league’s top-ranked defense, Baltimore, the pieces of the Carolina Panthers’ offseason plans all seem to be falling into place.

When the 2018 campaign began, there were plenty of legitimate questions as to how Cam Newton’s playing style and skill set would mesh with new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s vertical passing attack. Newton is a future Hall Of Famer, and Turner’s pedigree as an offensive mind is lengthy and unquestioned, but many wondered if the two would prove a mismatched set. The progress has come in fits and starts, but the verdict appears to be in: This pairing is going to work, and the rest of the league should be concerned.

Per the analytics site Football Outsiders, the Panthers currently rank fifth in overall offensive efficiency and have the top-ranked running game in the league. The Panthers tortured Baltimore with a seemingly simple but virtually indefensible combination of quick throws and run-pass option plays, all abetted by frequent pre-snap misdirection, which had the typically disciplined Ravens reeling around aimlessly like sailors on shore leave.

Given the correct game plan, Newton is a vastly underrated field general, and he conducted the dissection of Baltimore with a calm precision resembling his 2015 MVP campaign. Turner’s offense has had the intended effect of scoring points while subjecting Newton to less abuse, and the net result is a great quarterback in his prime looking healthier and happier midway through the season then he has since the Panthers made the Super Bowl.

Still more good news: The Panthers and GM Marty Hurney appear to have hit on first-round draft pick DJ Moore, the speedy wideout from Maryland who looked dynamic again last week in hauling in five catches for ninety yards and rushing twice for another thirty-nine. With the return of tight end Greg Olsen, Carolina’s cache of weapons—once seemingly threadbare—looks stocked and dangerous. Moore, sensational pass-catching running back Christian McCaffrey, possession receiver Devin Funchess, and change-of-pace options like CJ Anderson and Curtis Samuel have all thrived in roles for which they are well cast. While some concerns linger over the health of the offensive line, this is a smartly designed offense with a cannily assembled roster of talent—one that figures to improve as the season progresses and which can translate to road games in cold weather.

On defense, the Panthers may not have quite as much reason to feel giddy, but they can certainly feel good. After holding Carson Wentz and the Eagles to seventeen points in a comeback victory, Carolina yielded twenty-one to the Ravens, though much of that came after the game was well in hand. By and large, the mix-and-match secondary—populated with raw rookies and long-in-the-tooth journeymen—has overperformed since being torched by Eli Manning a few weeks back. The signing of previously blackballed-for-peaceful-protesting safety Eric Reid has proven a smart football move (as well an ethical one), as he has provided depth and toughness to a secondary that will need it if they are to hold back the Saints, Steelers, and Falcons in upcoming contests.

The front seven, meanwhile, has been an as-advertised strength. With perennial stalwarts Shaq Thomspon, Luke Kuechly, and Kawann Short leading the way, they expected to be good, and they are. Whether anyone in the NFC can slow down the Rams or Saints for a full sixty minutes remains an unresolved question, but the deep, physical Panthers possess as good a chance as anybody.

The Panthers should expect to move to 6–2 this Sunday against a very strange Tampa Bay team. Then again, in the mercurial NFL, trap games loom around every corner, and there is evidently no accounting for what strange magic may be conjured by the eerie beard of Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tampa Bay will look to test the Panthers with deep throws to Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, and they’ll hit on some of them, but they are also as likely as not to make a backbreaking mistake on offense if Carolina can remain patient in their assignments.

I don’t think this will be an easy game—I fully expect it to be competitive in the fourth quarter—but I do think Carolina’s new-look offense will ultimately prove too much for their defensively deficient division rivals. At 6–2, the Panthers’ playoff hopes would look awfully bright, and with two games remaining against the Saints, the NFC South is still very much on the table.

Next Game: Tampa Bay (3–4) at Carolina (5–2)

Odds: Panthers –6

Where To Watch: Fox 1 PM

Prediction: Panthers 29–21