The return to form by the defense is just one encouraging sign from the Panthers in a big division win.
There aren’t easy games in the NFL and there definitely aren’t easy divisional games. Yesterday’s win against the Falcons can come with all the caveats it wants to about Atlanta not being a great team, but the Panthers won an ugly game against a division rival. That’s a big deal coming off of a four-week losing slide that didn’t seem to have an end in sight. It’s amazing what can happen when your quarterback isn’t responsible for bafflingly chaotic plays. Combine that with one of the best unit performances by the offensive line this season, plus a return to form by the defense, and you get a win that had warts but also showed promise.
Of course, every Panthers victory has been Pyrrhic this season. Week 1 saw Myles Hartsfield to injured reserve. Week 2 was Pat Elflein and Juston Burris. The wheels really came off in Week 3 when the Panthers lost Christian McCaffrey and Jaycee Horn. From there out there were both injuries and regressions that, all piled together, resulted in loss after loss. The biggest regression of all was from Sam Darnold. His performances in Weeks 1-3 were a national story and his regression thereafter was becoming a punchline.
A bad day to have a good day
Darnold had flashes of competence each week, but wild misses and wilder decisions kept those flashes from becoming progress until yesterday. A healthy running game and good offensive line performance were probably key to that in part, but he had turned in poor games behind good protection before. Yesterday was something else. It smelled of progress in coaching—a breakthrough, if you want to be an optimist. He kept making safe decisions. He returned to using his legs to keep the ball both moving and in the Panthers hands. Naturally, the first game that felt like real progress was also the first he exited early this season due to injury.
The Panthers quarterback is now in the concussion protocol and we will all be on the edge of our seats to see how quickly he is able to return. Rhule mentioned in his post game press conference yesterday that the team would look for outside help at quarterback if it looked like Darnold would have an extended absence.
Carolina may not be the only team in the market for veteran help at quarterback. Jameis Winston was carted to the locker room during the second quarter of the Buccaneers-Saints game with a knee injury. The list of available free agent quarterbacks isn’t exactly inspiring. The bridges are probably thoroughly burnt for Cam Newton, but he has the most recent game experience of most of the crowd out there. The rest of that list is headlined by the likes of Robert Griffin III, Ryan Finley, and Joe Webb. Hell, Brian St. Pierre is technically a free agent and he’s three years younger than Tom Brady.
A rising tide of health
Outside of the quarterback position, the Panthers are actually seeing a lot of progress on the injury front. Elflein, Burris, and Hartsfield have been designated to return from injured reserve. Shaq Thompson and Stephon Gilmore both marked their return from injuries with big plays—including an interception apiece. Christian McCaffrey will be eligible to return next week against the Patriots. The team has absorbed most of the blows they’ve taken to date and are about to roll back into their early season fighting shape. This is excellent timing for that as they have four weeks plus a late bye week left before they head into the teeth of their schedule.
That stretch has one truly challenging opponent with the Arizona Cardinals, an impossible to predict match up against the New England Patriots, and games against the Miami Dolphins and Washington Football Team. Those last two are games the defense could win on their own, based on how each team is currently playing. That’s a great schedule to ease guys back in from injuries while sorting out their identity on offense. Identity in this case could mean how consistent can they keep Darnold or whoever they can be with a new quarterback, pending the concussion protocol.
The Panthers now get to hold their breath while an independent neurologist tells them how desperate they are for help in the coming week to month. Right now they have both the time and the returning players to figure out every other question they are facing. The offensive line started it’s sixth combination of players yesterday in eight games and turned in one of their best performances yet. Chuba Hubbard runs with more confidence each week. The defense as a whole is healthier than they have been since Week 3 and proved it with an impressive game against one of the best offenses they have seen so far. The guys on the sideline are only getting healthier and that leaves quarterback as the only big question remaining between this team and consistent success.
They are 4-4 right now, .500 just before the halfway mark on this 17-game season. They are two games behind the lead in the NFC South with nine games left to play. Actually competing is a tall order, but it is well within the realm of mathematical possibility. Sure, they’ve been streaky so far, but they’ve also been close in every game they’ve played.
My prediction is that they will run McCaffrey back on to injured reserve next week while trying to shield either PJ Walker or some other stopgap, but they’ll find a win in the process. They’ll drop a surprisingly close game to a good Cardinals squad and then rack up wins against Miami and Washington before the bye. That’s 7-5 with the Falcons, Bills, Bucs, Saints, and Bucs to close out the season. The phrase “tall order” comes back to mind, but it is a perfect schedule to close distance in the division if they are able to compete at that level. If not? Well, it’s a perfect schedule to measure just how far the Panthers have to come next off season.
The point of this conversation isn’t to suggest that the playoffs are likely for this team. There have been too many mistakes and too much bad injury luck to bet on that. But it is a legitimate possibility for these Panthers all the same. They have a clear, if difficult, path of which they are largely in control. That’s an impressive place to be after a four-game losing streak. All they have to do is figure out who is playing quarterback for them and how to get that player to score touchdowns. Is that so much to ask?