Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Domenik Hixon (87) reacts after scoring the winning touchdown in the last minute of the fourth quarter. The Panthers defeated the Saint 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers Now Have Inside Track on Road to MetLife Stadium

Carolina pulled the rabbit out of the hat yesterday when Cam Newton drove his team 65 yards in 32 seconds, hitting Domenik Hixon in the left corner of the end zone on a perfectly executed out pattern to give the Panthers their 17-13 win over NFC South divisional rival New Orleans. The win means if the Panthers can handle the Falcons in Atlanta next week, they win the NFC South and lock down the #2 overall seed in the NFC playoffs.

The Panthers even have a chance at – get this – home-field advantage through out and the top seed IF Seattle loses on week 17 at home against the Rams and, of course, the Panthers win at Atlanta. Then the Niners have to win, meaning they win the NFC West, ousting Seattle from their lofty perch and all the way down to the 5th or 6th seed.

Based on the game against the Niners last night, Atlanta won’t be an easy team to beat. They had the honor of playing in the last football game at Candlestick Park last night and were driving to tie or to win when Navorro Bowman made a “look at what I found” pick and ran it back for a TD. Otherwise, the game may have had a different outcome.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports.

Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports.

Kinda scary to think about that when you consider the issues the Panthers have had offensively this year. For a power running team, they sure have struggled to run the ball at times this season. While Tolbert and Williams make a wonderful “thunder and lightning” combo, the receiving corps is filled with “threes, fours and fives” in NFL coaching parlance, where they ultimately need a bunch of “ones, twos and threes.”

That is to say, especially after Steve Smith’s knee injury, Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn become the starters with Hixon coming off the bench. All are good players with some very unique, special skill sets but none of them are “go-to” receivers.

While we wait on news about his knee, let’s take a “tough” look at the Panthers – a critical one – as they enter the playoff scene and hit the road to MetLife Stadium:

The Panthers defense has shown chinks in the armor

The game at the Superdome showed what can happen to the defense if everyone isn’t doing their jobs. Since these are going to be playoff-caliber teams in the playoffs, duh, you can’t screw up much and expect to beat them.

I had noticed the Carolina back-four wasn’t getting hands on Saints’ WRs in the Superdome match-up. They got blown out by being unable to disrupt timing. Yesterday’s game was a far different story on the natural grass (and soggy turf in the second half) and the Panthers won. True, the field conditions helped, but they were jamming a lot better in that first half, and Brees was being pressured all day long. That sort of thing has to continue if the Panthers want to make passing the ball on them anywhere near as difficult as running it. Otherwise? I’d do just like the Oakland Raiders did when they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers on a Monday night game when Rich Gannon was the QB – just do not run it AT ALL! The Raiders won that game, on about 77 pass attempts and zero runs until about midway through the fourth quarter to ice a lead. They simply replaced the handoff with the flare or short dump-off pass to a back 3 or 4 yards deep over the middle. Completely neutralized the then-powerful Steelers’ linebacking corps.

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) reacts in the fourth quarter. The Panthers defeated the Saint 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) reacts in the fourth quarter. The Panthers defeated the Saint 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A team could do the same to the Panthers, although Carolina has two of the fastest linebackers in the entire NFL in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Both men are playing at an All-Pro level and make Chase Blackburn the “weakest link” in that front-seven. If Blackburn is the weakest link, you’re in pretty darned good shape, I’d say!

The offense has no explosiveness

The Panthers lead the entire NFL in fewest pass plays over 20 yards with 32. Folks, that’s two whole pass plays of 20+ yards PER GAME. That’s IT! Compare that with Denver’s 75…and Peyton Manning’s average pass distance traveled in the air is at something like a seven-year LOW! That means lots of his WRs are YAC-ing it up (yards after catch/contact). Manning has Welker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas, and Eric Decker. Again, compare that with even a healthy Steve Smith, Ted Ginn, Brandon LaFell, and Domenik Hixon.

Smitty is no longer a vertical threat, but remains one of the NFL’s feistiest and strongest receivers. Ted Ginn can burn you deep, but has inconsistent hands. LaFell is a possession WR who drops too many passes, but also makes some key first down catches in the clutch and also happens to be a very, very good run-blocker as a receiver. And Hixon came in as a reserve and made the game-winning catch under a highly pressurized situation. He came through in the clutch.

That said, none of these guys has the talent or physical ability of Denver’s receiving corps. Panthers’ receivers don’t generally take short passes for big gains, as reflected in the statistics. Also, some of those 20+ yard plays were designed screen passes, like the one DeAngelo Williams took 72 yards against the Jets, largely on the strength of a block downfield from….Brandon LaFell.

So, under the right circumstances and in the right offense and game plan, Carolina’s WRs can do SOME damage – just not in the traditional ways. Ramping up for a shootout is not the Panthers strength, and they don’t get in shootouts because their defense bails them out time and time again.

Nov 18, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn (19) breaks a tackle and scores the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter as New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (25) defends. The Panthers defeated the Patriots 24-20 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 18, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn (19) breaks a tackle and scores the winning touchdown in the fourth quarter as New England Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington (25) defends. The Panthers defeated the Patriots 24-20 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Special teams has become a strength

Can’t really say too much negative about the Panthers’ special teams. Against the Jets, they blocked a punt that completely turned the tide of the game around from a tight, close-fought defensive battle to forcing the Jets to play catch-up with a rookie QB calling the shots. Also, yesterday I made the observation to friend of mine (hi Joey!!) that I have seen TONS of Carolina punts downed inside the five yard line this year. BAGS full of ‘em. Part of that is second-year punter Brad Nortmann’s skill and part of it is great coverage by the punt team.

On kickoffs, we’ve not been allowing the huge returns we had the past two years and Ted Ginn gives the team the ability to “take it to the house” on any given kickoff play.

The one beef I do have with the kickoff return team is letting known trickster Sean Payton get one of his “surprise” onside kicks recovered in the first half. The defense bailed the team out, allowing only a field goal to result, but that’s like falling for an old trick twice. Payton made the gutsy move infamous by successfully pulling it off to start the second half of the Super Bowl when they defeated the Peyton Manning-led Colts, so it’s not like there was no warning it could come. The leading edge of the return team should stay put until they actually see the kick travel over their heads on a normal kickoff before starting to chase it, but that’s a very fixable issue.

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers safety Mike Mitchell (21) breaks up a pass intended for New Orleans Saints wide receiver Kenny Stills (84) during the second quarter of the game at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Pass coverage a weakness, but not fatal

The Panthers’ front-seven is tops in the NFL, bar none, over all seven guys as a group. GM David Gettleman did a great job of finding a couple of very good safeties in Quentin Mikell and Mike Mitchell over the offseason. Captain Munnerlyn is a very cagey, physical corner but limited in size at 5’8″ and the team lacks a “shutdown” corner since Chris Gamble was let go. With the NFL’s rules being the way they are in the passing game, a pair of Darrelle Revis(es) couldn’t cover sufficiently to shut down a passing game. The key is jamming at the line and the pass rush, both of which the Panthers CAN do well. The biggest key is the jamming at the line, which they did a whole lot better job of against New Orleans Sunday than at the Superdome….and that’s why being the #2 seed for the Panthers gives them an inside route to MetLife Stadium.

You see, a two-seed plays all their playoff games at home until the NFC Championship Game, and only then if the #1 seed, the Seattle Seahawks, holds serve themselves would Carolina go on the road. The Panthers lost to them the first game of the season, 12-7, at Bank of America Stadium and have improved in a lot of areas since then. If anyone can go to CenturyLink field and beat the Seahawks (other than the Arizona Cardinals, whom I said before the game would win at Seattle – ask the aforementioned Joey I said hi to), it’s the Carolina Panthers.

Yes – recently, the Seahawks have shown their mortal side. The Arizona Cardinals are surging and hot while the Seahawks are looking a little like a team that peaked a hair too early. It can be done.

Most teams play better at home than on the road, but it’s defense, not offense, that helps in road victories. If a road team can keep the score close, anything can happen to turn the tide just enough to pull out a win.

Can the Panthers win a cold-weather Super Bowl?

The Seattle Seahawks may have lane one – the most inside track – to MetLife Stadium and February’s cold-weather Super Bowl, but Carolina is in lane two. Should Seattle stumble next week at home against the Rams and the Niners game fall into place, the Panthers would have home field advantage throughout – if they win at Atlanta next week.

I don’t think the Panthers have played a cold-weather GAME this year – not a really cold one, anyway. If they make it to MetLife Stadium in February, they very likely could be facing a team that is used to playing those games like Denver or Kansas City. If New England gets hot, they could go on a Super Bowl run. Isn’t like it hasn’t happened before, and would be a rematch of the Panthers’ lone trip to the big game – but under harsher conditions. I do not want the Panthers to play New England twice this year. They barely escaped on a controversial picked-up flag on Mike Mitchell’s interception of Brady’s pass in the end zone and New England’s green receivers have had more time to season. Sure, no Gronk, but it’s still BB and Tom Brady. Asking a team to beat New England twice in a year is asking a lot, too, even if both are home games.

Dec 15, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert (35) runs as New York Jets inside linebacker David Harris (52) and New York Jets free safety Jaiquawn Jarrett (37) defend in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Remember the 2000 Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens

Those Ravens led by a then-young Ray Lewis and Ed Reed put the team on their shoulders and carried it to a Super Bowl victory against the New York Giants. It was one of the worst offensive teams around, having Trent Dilfer at QB. Bruising 245 lb RB Jamal Lewis was the workhorse on the ground as the ravens had a similar overall style on both sides…crushing defense led by a very talented young MLB and a ball-control offense that minimized opponents’ possessions on the field.

It CAN be done, for sure. You need only look at that 2000 Ravens team to see that a similar team has done it in the past. My biggest concern would be how would a team from the south fare in, say, 20-degree weather? The Seahawks are more used to that sort of thing, as are the Eagles and Giants. Same for whoever wins the NFC North this year.

So, the Panthers have some issues still facing them and ones they largely have no control over. All they can do is lock down the #2 seed in Atlanta this weekend and head into the playoffs knowing they’ll have that home game after a first-round bye. Win that, and they’ll either be going to Seattle or hosting whoever defeated them – not an easy task either way you slice it. But that’s what makes getting TO the Super Bowl so special.

If anything, Carolina’s offensive style should translate well into the cold weather since they don’t try a lot of deep balls and rely more on the run, screens, and those bread-and-butter deep comeback/deep out patterns. It’s those deep out patterns that could sail in frigid conditions, but a little of that could be worked around in the game planning stages.

Winning it would mean even MORE pressure will be put on Carolina’s defense. Again – facing Denver or KC (the two likeliest candidates right now) means facing very, very efficient and potent offenses that Carolina could really not beat in a shootout. The defense will HAVE to play “lights-out” – almost like what happened in last year’s Super Bowl with the literal power outage – in order for the Panthers to have a chance at hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the winner of the Super Bowl this year.

Yeah, the Panthers may have the inside track on the road to MetLife Stadium, but that doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride.

Go Panthers and #KeepPounding

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

in the spirit of full-disclosure, MetLife as part of the Road to MetLife Stadium Preferred Blogger Program has provided me access to MetLife Stadium-related events and reader giveaways prizes. 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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