The Panthers are 5-3 and have themselves in a position they haven’t been in for a long while. They are playing quality football, feature a stifling defense, have a franchise quarterback and finally an identity as a team. Yet there is still a sense of wait and see regarding this team. A lot of that can be tied to the fact that most of this squad is comprised of players who haven’t played on winning teams in the NFL. So while the Panthers have cruised to four straight victories it is going to take a win over a marquee opponent for them to be taken seriously on a national level.
But are they ready for the big stage?
That’s the question everyone wants to know and we may find out on Sunday. It isn’t a primetime game and it isn’t going to be played under the lights, but it’s the game of the week and the spotlight will be on seeing as it is slated in the second set of games. A poor performance won’t go as unnoticed as it would if it was a noon game. There’s no where to hide when there are only two other games on. Last time Carolina played a late afternoon game it was a disaster in the desert, as Arizona took the Panthers down 22-6. The offense was listless and couldn’t handle the pressure of the Cardinals.
The 49ers know how to handle a big stage. They are only months removed from a Super Bowl appearance in which they were close to winning. This game clearly is going to mean more to the Panthers, but that doesn’t necessarily give them an edge. Pressure does funny things to players and teams. The Panthers haven’t handled pressure well in the past. Don’t believe me go and look at their record in late game scenarios. It’s ugly, but another opportunity presents itself on Sunday; an opportunity to declare to the league that this is a team that is capable of beating the top dogs of the league, and not just picking off lesser opponents.
Under Ron Rivera the Panthers have often saved their best performances for late in the season when it didn’t matter. While the inability to come away with wins in close games still hasn’t come to fruition he finally has the Panthers in a position where late season wins won’t be meaningless. The first half of the Panthers’ season began with a loss to an NFC West opponent in Seattle, a team expected to contend for a Super Bowl. The Panthers have a chance to begin the second half of the season with a win over a different NFC West opponent that is regarded as a Super Bowl contender. Have the Panthers truly turned the corner, and do they deserve to be mentioned with the upper echelon of the league, or is this a team that still isn’t quite ready to take that next step?
I don’t know now, but the picture will be clearer Sunday night. If you’re going to be in the San Francisco area, Panthers vs. 49ers tickets are still available for the big game.