With a 33-14 win over the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving, the Carolina Panthers moved to 11-0 this season and furthered its stranglehold on the NFC South. The win brought vindication to Coach Ron Rivera’s notion earlier this week that Dallas opening as the favorite in the game was “a little disrespectful.”
“Apparently, they know something we don’t, so we’re just going to prepare and get ourselves ready to play on Thursday,” Rivera said at the time. “We’ll show up.”
And show up they did, winning the team’s first game on Thanksgiving. Quarterback Cam Newton threw for 183 yards on 16-of-27 passing, and rushed for his seventh touchdown of the season.
“If we continue to roll and make things happen, we’ll validate ourselves eventually,” Rivera said last week.
Carolina’s victory moves it to within five victories of becoming the third team — joining the 1972 Miami Dolphins and 2007 New England Patriots — to run the table in the NFL regular season.
I wrote earlier this month that Carolina had the best odds to achieve the feat, and ESPN’s Football Power Index gives them at least a 60 percent shot of winning each remaining game, with the lowest chances coming in Week 16 when the Panthers play the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome.
There’s a limited sample size, but data suggests that Newton improves in the final month of the season. In 17 December games, Newton’s record is 14-3; his completion percentage in those games (59.2 percent) is higher than his career average; his quarterback rating (93.4) is higher than it’s in any other month; and he has accounted for fewer interceptions (nine) when compared to every other month (excluding January, in which he has only played one game).
It isn’t just Newton that improves in the final month of the regular season, though; Carolina’s defense has shut down opponents in December games essentially every year since Rivera became head coach. Some of this, like Newton’s monthly splits, has to do with the soft NFC South competition Carolina’s faces in the final weeks of the regular season. But the splits are glaring, and are only becoming more ostentatious each year Rivera has been at the helm of the franchise.
Last season the Panthers allowed just 10.8 points per game in December, nearly two touchdowns fewer than their season average (23.4). In every season but 2013, Carolina allowed fewer points per contest in December than it did over the course of the entire season.
With an elite defense that’s arguably better than any under Rivera, and Newton in the midst of what could be an MVP-caliber season, there’s little reason to doubt that the Panthers could become the third unbeaten team in NFL history.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the Guardian, the Pacific Standard and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer.