Oct 24, 2013; Tampa, FL, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) runs and gives the touchdown ball to a fan during the first half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Panthers are in the Fast Lane on the Road to MetLife Stadium

The Ron Rivera-led Carolina Panthers got off to yet another patented slow start this season, dropping three of their first four ball games. The 12-7 loss to Seattle was depressing enough, but the following week when rookie QB E.J. Manuel tossed a short TD pass on a busted coverage in the waning seconds of that game, the fans’ cries for Rivera’s head re-started in earnest.

After the 38-0 domination of the New York Giants at Bank of America Stadium but a loss at Arizona the next week, things were looking like the Road to MetLife Stadium was filled with not potholes but sinkholes.

All that has changed in the days since with the Carolina Panthers on the upswing with a three game winning streak, placing them at 4-3 and above .500 since before Ron Rivera took the team over to start the 2011 season. If he can have this team finish the second half of the season with similar strength as he had last season, it’s quite possible that an 11-5 record will make the playoffs. Perhaps even 10-6.

In any case, it’s a great sign that the team is headed in the right direction. Cam Newton has been one of the most effective quarterbacks in the NFL the past 3 weeks with his lowest QB rating coming in last week at over 111. The two games prior to that, his rating was up above the 130 mark or so and he completed over 88% of his passes on 15 of 17 attempts against the St. Louis Rams.

Cam’s certainly at his best when the running game is going, and with it and a top-notch defense, Cam is really in his element when he isn’t trying 35+ passes per game. As I have been saying for over a year now, this team is built to be a power running team.

Considering that MetLife Stadium is to be the venue of the first cold-weather Super Bowl in memory, perhaps ever, the Panthers actually have a leg up on most other teams.

It’s much easier to run the ball in sub-freezing temperatures than it is to pass. Fingers start to get numb, muscles hard to keep warm, and accuracy becomes an issue in the passing game. Running just requires that you line up and hit your opponent in the mouth, open a hole for the ball carrier, and let them work their magic.

In addition, it looks like the Panthers’ running game is going to get stronger as the season progresses. Fans are anxiously awaiting the return of RB Jonathan Stewart this weekend and Rivera could hardly contain his own excitement when asked about it at a recent press conference. While he couldn’t say 100%, he did mouth the words “read between the lines” when speaking optimistically of Stewart’s return.

Stewart probably won’t be much of a force for a few weeks until he gets back into “football shape,” but having him start out with a few carries this weekend and working him up to game speed for the stretch run can only strengthen a Panthers’ team that controls its own destiny. Since they haven’t played the New Orleans Saints yet this year, two victories would put them in first place since the Panthers are only two games back and that scenario would give them the tiebreaker edge over the Saints.

Even if the Panthers don’t win the division, as things sit now, they’d actually be the best team not to make the playoffs – a “seventh” seed if you will. All that can change with key wins over suddenly mortal teams left on their schedule like the San Francisco 49’ers and the rest of their division games.

Even some of the AFC teams that looked to be tough this year now don’t look so bad. In week twelve, the Panthers travel to south Florida to take on the Miami Dolphins, but the ‘Fins have big issues on their offensive line and especially at tackle whereas the Panthers have one of the best pair of pass-rushing defensive ends in the NFL in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. The Dolphins are horrible running the ball, so it will likely come down to Tannehill throwing the ball 40 or more times and likely getting abused by Carolina’s defensive line in the process.

Otherwise, the Patriots and the Jets loom as the rest of the AFC East is taken on by the Panthers. That loss to Buffalo and the way they lost really stung since it was quite preventable, but it’s in the past now. The Patriots don’t have the firepower on offense that they’re accustomed to having, they have key injuries on defense (like MLB Jerod Mayo), and the New York Jets have the up and down rookie QB Geno Smith.

Both the Pats and the Jets come to Charlotte to play, so this remaining schedule is actually looking better and better all the time. If the Panthers can just get even that 6th playoff spot – the last Wild Card seed – they certainly will be a team nobody wants to face – especially not with that very strong young defense.

If interested, keep an eye on MetLife’s Facebook page for their events and giveaways.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

*In the spirit of full-disclosure, I’ve partnered with MetLife as part of the Road to MetLife Stadium Preferred Blogger Program. Throughout the year I’ll be receiving special access to MetLife Stadium events and be conducting reader giveaways, with prizes provided by MetLife. However, no payment was given or expected for posting about the program, and as always, all opinions given here are fully my own.

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