This week at the New York Times, I look at the hard-to-read Carolina Panthers. Carolina has won six of nine games since I declared them a sleeping giant. On the other hand, the team has a losing record this season and has beaten teams with a combined one victory. In other words, as tends to be the case, you see what you want to see when looking at the Panthers.
We will have to check back in three months for the final answer, but there are signs that the Carolina Panthers, a disappointment at 2-3, could become one of the N.F.L.’s breakout teams.
First, Coach Ron Rivera, quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers will have to overcome a well-earned reputation as a group that cannot beat good teams; that cannot win close games in the fourth quarter; and that is too conservative on fourth down. As a rookie in 2011, Newton dazzled N.F.L. fans, but the Panthers finished 6-10. Carolina was 1-7 against teams that finished with a winning record, and the Panthers won once in nine tries when they had the ball and were trailing by one score in the fourth quarter.
The same issues cropped up last year. Carolina started 3-9, with an 0-7 record in games decided by 7 or fewer points and a 1-5 mark against teams that finished with a winning record. With the season effectively over at the three-quarters mark, the Panthers finished 4-0, ensuring that Rivera would be back for another season.
This season, the Panthers defeated the winless Giants, 38-0, in Week 3 and won in Minnesota against the 1-4 Vikings, 35-10, on Sunday. But the Panthers have blown two fourth-quarter leads. And after a loss to Arizona, Carolina was 5-15 since 2011 in games that were within one score entering the fourth quarter, the worst mark in the league.
But there is reason to be optimistic about the Panthers. Carolina has outscored its opponents by 41 points this season, the most by a 2-3 team since 1921. There has been a strong relationship between points differential and the future performance of 2-3 teams. Of all the 2-3 teams from 1990 to 2012, 11 have outscored opponents by 20 or more points, with an average points differential of 28.5. Over the rest of the season, those 11 teams won 64.9 percent of their games.
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