BOSTON (CBS) – Four games into 2013, Carolina’s Ron Rivera was asked to describe the play of his Panthers at the season’s quarter pole.
“Frustrating,” Rivera calmly replied, the day after Carolina committed nine penalties and four turnovers in a 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. “Because of what we can be, or who we should be. But the truth of the matter is you are what your record says, and that’s what’s frustrating; because I really don’t believe we’re a 1-3 football team.
“The reason I don’t think so is that there’s enough good players in that locker room that they should be infectious.”
Explaining himself, Rivera cited the exemplary approach to practice each day by tight end Greg Olsen, “desire to win” of quarterback Cam Newton and “constant effort” from linebacker Luke Kuechly. If only their qualities could catch on …
“So to me, there is reason to be optimistic,” Rivera concluded. “But also realistic, because we are 1-3.”
Five weeks later, on another morning after another game, Rivera again addressed the Carolina media. Where he previously sat on the hot seat of a coach under fire, he now wore a smile. Wishful thinking out loud had become prophecy. Faith in a 1-3 football team had been rewarded.
This time, Rivera was talking about the hottest team in the NFC. His Panthers had just returned from San Francisco, where they stifled the 49ers, 10-9. As defending conference champs, San Fran had won five straight, only to see its cross-country visitors leave riding their own five-game winning streak.
Carolina has become what Rivera suggested it could be. Or, more to his early-October point — and with apologies to Dennis Green — the Panthers aren’t who Rivera thought they weren’t.
“If you’re winning, you’re more relevant and people pay more attention to you – and deservedly so,” Rivera says of his now 6-3 Panthers. “We’ve got good players that deserve some recognition.”
Of course, this Monday they’ll be recognized in the national spotlight taking on the always-relevant Patriots.
“Real solid team all the way around, playing very well right now,” is how New England head coach Bill Belichick describes Carolina. “It will be a big challenge for us going down there on Monday night. I’m sure there will be a lot of energy in the stadium and we’ll have to match that.”
The Panthers last hosted a Monday game in 2008, which is also the last year they made the playoffs. This will be their 11th MNF appearance all time. In contrast, Monday night lights will shine on the Pats for the 45th time overall and 18th time with Tom Brady at quarterback.
Having enjoyed so many prime-time opportunities, he understands how his Carolina counterparts feel.
“It will be a fun night. It will be a great atmosphere down there for football,” Brady says. “They’re going to be fired up, we’re fired up. Monday Night Football is always pretty cool, especially when you play a really good team on Monday Night Football. It’s a fun night. It’s November, you feel the weather is changing out there. This is when the most important games are. You want to be playing in the biggest moments.”
The moment they take the field in Charlotte, Brady and the rejuvenated offense he leads will confront one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses.
Carolina ranks 2nd in total yards (283.3), rushing yards (82.0) and points allowed (12.8) per game. The Panthers lead the league with a 4.26 interception percentage (13 thefts on 305 throws), including two picks returned for scores. They also have 29 sacks on 324 pass plays, good for the NFL’s fifth-highest rate (8.68 percent).
More important than such numbers is how Carolina achieves them. Quoting Belichick, the Panthers have a “disruptive” front to go with “instinctive” linebackers and defensive backs.
“They don’t do a million different things, but what they do, they do well,” he says. “You really have to earn everything. You have to block them. You have to get open, you have to be able to operate pretty quickly, because they close in on you in a hurry up front.”
“They get an incredible amount of pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz,” said New England’s offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “When you can do that with just a four-man rush, that certainly allows you to take your other seven guys and try to make it difficult to find holes to throw the ball in the passing game.”
Much of the pass rush is generated by defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. After totaling 23.5 sacks in 2012, they’ve combined for 13.5 through the first nine games this season. Johnson has 21 sacks in his last 22 games. Meanwhile, Hardy has a pair of three-sack performances since October 2012.
They’re supported by an opportunistic group of so-called ‘ball hawks,’ none more notable than last season’s Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year, Luke Kuechly.
Twice a national leader in tackles during his Boston College career, Kuechly became Carolina’s middle linebacker in Week 5 of 2012. At the time, the Panthers were 27th in total defense. Ever since, with Kuechly playing 98 percent of their snaps, they’ve ranked second.
“He’s a really solid player. He has great instincts,” Brady says of Kuechly. “He just goes sideline-to-sideline (and) takes on blocks. He just has a knack of knowing where the ball is going to be, and that’s hard to teach.”
It’s also consistent with Carolina’s secondary.
“Those guys make a lot of plays just because they kind of sense it,” Belichick said of the Panthers defensive backs, as well as Kuechly and fellow linebacker Thomas Davis. “They sniff it out and get a step or a step and a half ahead on the play, because they anticipate.”
Front to back, Carolina is also physical against the run. The Panthers have surrendered only three rushing scores while limiting starting backs to just 47.08 yards a game since Week 14 of 2012.
They’re exactly the type of defense one expects from a Rivera-coached team. As a player, he was an outside linebacker for the vaunted Chicago Bears of 1985. As an assistant, he oversaw a Chicago unit that led the NFL in takeaways, before moving to San Diego and transforming the Chargers into a league leader in total defense.
Last week at San Francisco, opposite a 49ers team that scored at least 31 points each of its previous five contests, Carolina gave up only three field goals. The Niners totaled just 151 yards, including a paltry 45 yards in six second-half series.
Regarding the Panthers offense, it did barely enough to eke out the victory. Still, that performance notwithstanding, Newton has complemented the defense beautifully throughout the past month.
The first four games of the season, he completed 58 percent of his passes, with six touchdowns and five interceptions. But during Carolina’s winning streak, Newton’s completion rate is .674 and his TD-to-interception ratio is 7-to-3.
His primary targets include the reliable Olsen (103 consecutive games played) and still-dangerous Steve Smith (seven 1,000-yard receiving seasons). He’s also connected with Ted Ginn Jr., whose 386 receiving yards are his most since 2009.
Newton was recently rejoined in the backfield by Jonathan Stewart. Returning from injury, Stewart reunited with fellow running back DeAngelo Williams. Together, they’ve led the Panthers to a league-high 12,429 yards rushing since 2008. Then, neither is more dangerous than Newton, who has 26 rushing scores in 41 career games.
With offensive coordinator Mike Shula opting for a near-equal number of runs (291 attempts) and passes (297 plays), Carolina leads the NFL in time of possession (33:48) and is second in five-minute drives (17). More substance than a style of play, the approach perfectly suits the Panthers’ rock-solid defense.
They get ahead, and stay ahead. Carolina’s yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown, outscored opponents 38-8 in the opening period and led at halftime in eight of nine games.
“Us being able to be ready to go and being able to match that — the start and intensity and the execution that they have — will be a key part of this game too,” Belichick warned.
Indeed, because much has changed since the Panthers opened October by losing to Arizona. Back then, Rivera was left to speak wistfully of his playing past, hoping to find a parallel to his coaching present.
“I’ve been on teams where you showed up and that was worth seven points,” he said. “We’re not there. We’ve got a ways to go. We’re a young football team in some respects. In other respects, we should have arrived by now.”
Nobody from New England will concede anything to Carolina simply for showing up. But as Brady advises, the Patriots better show up too, ready to go from the jump. The Panthers are a long way from 1-3.
“You just have to know the challenge, know what it takes: 60 minutes of great football,” Brady said. “You’re just not going to go in there and put together 30 good minutes and think you’re going to win. We have to play well all night.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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