Here’s my gift to you, wrapped in Panther blue
It was probably a little bit closer — and scarier — than it needed to be, but the Carolina Panthers picked up their 14th win of the season last weekend.
In the minutes between the MMA bout that was Josh Norman and Odell Beckham, Jr. a football game was played. And Cam Newton was the undisputed star of it.
Newton continued to look like the league’s MVP by compiling a stat line that would typically require two Pro Bowl-caliber players.
As a quarterback, Newton threw for more yards than he has in any other game this season (340).
He threw five touchdown passes, which is something he has done for the team two other times this season.
Not only has Newton been the arm behind the league’s top offense, but he has also been one of its strongest pair of legs as well.
In the 38-35 win over the Giants last weekend, he became the first player in NFL history to throw for over 300 yards, rush for 100 yards and throw for five touchdowns in a game.
It was Newton’s first 100-yard rushing performance of the season.
His seven rushing touchdowns this season are the most on the team, and his 580 yards on the ground make him the team’s second-leading rusher, behind Jonathan Stewart.
Newton’s on-field heroics have already produced the best season in the team’s 20-year history - and a sixth division title.
Newton has a defensive counterpart to help him try to guide the team to a perfect regular season record. Luke Kuechly’s performance on the defensive side of the ball has been nothing short of phenomenal this season.
The fourth-year linebacker is among the NFC’s leading tacklers with 101, despite missing three games with a concussion.
But in the Panthers’ quest for a 16-0 regular season, Kuechly is showing signs that his best football of the season may be ahead of him.
With a season-high 10 tackles last week, Kuechly turned in one of his best games of the season against the Giants.
The emergence of Norman as a shutdown cornerback has helped the Panthers hold opponents to under 20-points-per-game. (The Panthers’ offense averages just over 32).
Those two numbers bode well for Carolina, who finish the season with a pair of games over divisional rivals Atlanta and Tampa Bay, respectively.
Carolina beat Atlanta on Dec. 13, and soundly too.
In fact, the 38-0 victory was the Panthers’ largest margin of victory this season and the defense’s only shutout.
The Falcons are coming off of a week in which they managed to score 23 points against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Considering that Jacksonville came into the game with one of the league’s worst defenses, Atlanta will need to play like they did much earlier in the season to have a chance against Carolina.
The Buccaneers are a little tougher to figure out than Atlanta, because Jameis Winston has shown flashes of brilliance at times this season.
In fact, Tampa Bay’s loss to the Rams last week was the first time that the rookie quarterback has eclipsed the 300-yard mark in a game.
And while the Panthers will face the dilemma of whether or not to play their starters in the final week of the season, the Bucs will certainly want to finish their tough season on a high note.
But the Panthers are led by a coach who is famously known as “Riverboat Ron,” so a perfect season would likely be a gamble worth taking for Rivera if his team dispatches the Falcons again this week.
So with Christmas approaching, my gift to you is that I predict the Panthers will finish the regular season with a spotless 16-0 record.
And if by chance something goes wrong between now and the Jan. 3 finale, just remember that it’s the thought that counts.