Don’t look now, but the Carolina Panthers are tied for the NFC South lead.
It was practically impossible to see this coming after an 0-2 start, coupled with the loss of star running back Christian McCaffrey for four to six weeks with an ankle injury.
Many wrote the Panthers off before the season after they hired a first-year NFL head coach and completely overhauled the roster, dumping quarterback Cam Newton along the way. There seemed to be no way rookie coach Matt Rhule’s team could keep pace with Drew Brees and New Orleans or Tom Brady and Tampa Bay.
A win by the Saints on Monday night would make it a three-way tie at 3-2.
The Panthers’ victories are coming for three reasons:
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is playing lights-out, smart, mistake-free football, finding ways to get the ball into the hands of playmakers as efficiently as anyone in the NFL.
The NFL’s youngest defense has grown up in a hurry, finding unique ways to pressure the quarterback and make big plays in coordinator Phil Snow’s multiple sets.
Everybody is playing hard and fast on both sides of the ball. McCaffrey’s replacement, Mike Davis, showed it repeatedly on a late fourth-quarter drive that also was aided by a 17-yard run by Curtis Samuel in which he carried defenders the final 10 yards.
With a home game against the Chicago Bears next week, the games will only get bigger for a team thought to be in a rebuilding mode. The Panthers likely will get McCaffrey back in a couple of weeks, making them potentially more dangerous.
McCaffrey might have summed up this team’s potential best on the day after he suffered the injury in a Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay.
“We’ve lost two games, not because we’re a bad team,’’ he said. “That’s something that can be corrected, injury or not with me. This team has a lot of fight. Our team has a lot of resiliency. And we have the right guys to pick it up from here.”
QB breakdown: Bridgewater continues to prove why the new staff wanted to go with him over Newton and why Rhule this past week called him one of the smartest players he’s ever been around. He had 261 passing yards in the first half, his most in a first half and the second-best half of his career. He finished with 313 yards passing and two touchdowns with no picks for the second straight week.
Promising trend: Rhule noted that wide receiver Samuel had several key third-down catches after last week’s win against Arizona. He had three in the first quarter of this one to help Carolina dig out of an early 7-0 hole. Those went for 8, 7 and 17 yards. Samuel, who played some running back at Ohio State, also provided some tough inside yards in the run game with the Panthers down to two backs. None was bigger than a 17-yard run in which he literally carried defenders for a 17-yard run on third-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter.
Pivotal play I: Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan had tight end Hayden Hurst wide open in the end zone on second-and-8 from the Carolina 13 in the fourth quarter – and missed him. Badly. The Falcons had to settle for a field goal after an incompletion on the next play to leave a 20-13 deficit.
Pivotal play II: The Falcons faced third down at the Carolina 5 with 8:49 remaining when Ryan was picked off by safety Juston Burris in the end zone. It was a solid play by Burris, but a horrible throw by Ryan with Burris in better position to make the catch than wide receiver Russell Gage.