The Panthers start the season 2-0 for the second consecutive year, as they defeat the Texans 24-17 at Bank of America Stadium.
Much like their week 1 win in Jacksonville, Carolina’s 24-17 home victory on Sunday wasn’t without it’s flaws – but provided another valuable talley in the win column. Cam Newton was again the team’s leading rusher, and added 2 touchdown passes to his 76 yards on the ground and 1 rushing TD, which was highlight-material to say the least:
1. Mike Shula Shows a More Aggressive Side
One of the most conservative-minded individuals in football showed a different side of his playbook against the Texans, twice electing to take deep shots at the end zone on 1st & 10 plays — both of which resulted in touchdown passes. The second came directly after AJ Klein’s 4th quarter interception of Ryan Mallet, appropriating a popular strategy to gamble for a quick score after forcing a turnover. With no true number one receiver on the roster, he’ll need to continue this aggressiveness to put points on the board — especially throughout the Panthers’ next slate of games which includes 4 playoff contenders. More on that later.
2. Josh Norman is Making a Push for a Top 10 Season
In his first contract season of a 4 year career full of ups and downs, Norman is stating an early case to be considered with the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Leading the strongest secondary that Carolina has fielded in years, he’s helped limit opponents’ top overall receiver to 60 yards or less and no touchdowns, for 9 straight games now. A list that includes Julio Jones (twice), Josh Gordon, Mike Evans, Jimmy Graham, Jeremy Maclin, and now Deandre Hopkins.
Norman, who played high school football about an hour away from Hopkins in South Carolina, was on him for most of the afternoon and gave up 6 catches for only 40 yards – none for first downs. He’s quickly shot up the Pro Football Focus positional ranks through 2 weeks of top tier coverage, and will likely demand top pay when contract talks open up again after the season. With a pass rush that can’t seem to find a difference-maker opposite Charles Johnson, he’s helped transform this defense’s identity – turning the secondary from a glaring weakness to a game-breaking strength.
3. AJ Klein Could Start at Linebacker for Several NFL Teams
Similar to his rookie season in 2013, when he got his first career start due to a Chase Blackburn foot injury, AJ Klein’s number was called again this week — this time to fill the shoes of the league’s leading tackler. After Luke Kuechly suffered a concussion late in the first half of last week’s contest in Jacksonville, Klein stepped in at middle linebacker and led an defensive performance that only allowed 75 second-half yards — and never let the Jaguars offense cross midfield.
Earlier this week he learned that he would get the start in Kuechly’s void, and once again exceeded expectations. The 5th round pick out of Iowa State, who knows all three linebacker positions, recorded a momentous late game interception that led to 7 immediate points and Carolina’s largest lead of the game. Having a versatile 4th linebacker on the roster who can step up when called on is exceedingly valuable to this defense, as well as Luke Kuechly’s long-term health. From the game film that he’s laid down, to the leadership beyond his years that he’s provided, its safe to say that there are several teams that could use Klein’s full-time services. But with Thomas Davis in his 11th NFL season, and the depth that Klein has afforded the defense, he’ll likely have his contract extended before any teams get the chance.
The Panthers enter division play for the first time in 2015, as they’ll play host to New Orleans at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. The Saints will be looking for their first win of the season after a tough home loss to Tampa Bay, in which they allowed the Buccaneers to rush for 139 yards — the same total that Carolina’s ground attack is averaging through 2 games.
Free agent acquisition CJ Spiller, who underwent knee surgery early in training camp, only saw 7 snaps in his highly-anticipated Saints debut, and will arrive in Charlotte to face a much stingier defense — one inside the top 10 in all major categories.
ANOTHER STRONG START
This marks the second consecutive season that the Panthers have started 2-0, and the only two in the Rivera-Newton era. Dating back to the start of last December (including playoffs), the Panthers are 7-1, with an undefeated record at home.
Frame it any way you like, every major media outlet paints its own narrative anyway, but starting an NFL season with 2 wins gives a franchise a 63% chance at playing January football.
Since 1990, NFL teams that started … 2-0 made playoffs 63% of time 1-1 made playoffs 41% of time 0-2 made playoffs 12% of time
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 21, 2015
Carolina’s biggest obstacle looks to be the division-rival Atlanta Falcons, who find themselves in the same percentile, and have looked strong in the process. The two teams face off in weeks 14 and 16, both of which stand a chance to have major playoff implications attached. Of course, the Panthers will first have to get through a brutal slate of games over the next 6 weeks — one that includes perennial playoff contenders in the Seahawks, Eagles, Colts, and Packers — for those two late Atlanta matchups to have much meaning.
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