It’s very exciting to see the Carolina Panthers dig themselves from rock bottom to win four in a row through December, concluding with a 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons that wins them the NFC South and the final playoff spot in the conference. However, a lot of it had to do with the ultra weak division and schedule facing them in the final month of the season.
Because three of the last four wins came against NFC South teams. The fourth? The Cleveland Browns, who fell apart in the final six weeks of the season. Cam Newton isn’t injured anymore, that’s true. The running game is working behind Newton and Jonathan Stewart not to mention the defense, allowing only 10.8 points over the last four games. But the Panthers are still the team that goes into the playoff with a 7-8-1 record and had a run of one win in 10 games from mid-September until the beginning of December.
In a win-or-go-home game, the Panthers ascended over the lowly Falcons, a team that went 5-0 against the division until that point. But momentum is a curious thing, and the Panthers came into the building carrying an enormous amount of it. They head into the playoff with that feeling of invincibility and nothing to lose. Getting to play the Arizona Cardinals doesn’t hurt as well, considering their quarterback problems and all.
The Atlanta Falcons, a team with Matt Ryan at quarterback, Roddy White and Julio Jones at receiver and other very talented and proven playmakers in other slots managed to put up only 3 points in the most important game of the season. They were held to only 288 yards by the Panthers, as Ryan threw two interceptions, both of them returned for touchdowns. Mike Smith has done some very nice things with the Falcons in the regular season, but this season is the final straw for a head coach that has run out of credit with almost everyone a long time ago.
And on the other side, a team and coach with reborn faith and credit. The Panthers are playing inspired football as some might call it, and don’t have any rest to spoil what they’ve built over the last month. That bye week possibly took them out of focus last season after a great run to finish the season. They’re not as good of a team in 2014, no one is arguing, but getting hot at the right moment is more important than being the best in the regular season. This time, the Panthers have that going for them.