Stats & Info: Carolina Panthers

Game recap: Seahawks 31, Panthers 17

January, 11, 2015
Jan 11

AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenRussell Wilson's third-down passing helped the Seahawks reach the NFC Championship Game.
The Seattle Seahawks defended their home turf Saturday to beat the Carolina Panthers in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game. But a postseason home win for Seattle is nothing new.

The Seahawks improved to 10-2 all-time at home in the postseason, having won their last eight home playoff games. That’s tied with the Redskins for the fourth-longest postseason home win streak in NFL history. With a win in next weekend’s NFC Championship Game, Seattle would equal the 1989-95 Bills for the third-longest streak.

With a victory in the NFC Championship Game, the Seahawks would become the first NFC team to reach back-to-back Super Bowls since the 1996-97 Packers. The Seahawks successfully ended a drought for defending Super Bowl winners, becoming the first such team to win a playoff game the following season since the 2005 Patriots. That season, the Patriots won one playoff game before losing the following week to the Broncos.

Seattle will get to host next week's NFC Championship Game, and since drafting Russell Wilson in 2012, the Seahawks are 25-2 at home (including the postseason). Wilson improved to 5-1 in his postseason career as a starting quarterback with his first career three-touchdown playoff game. During the entire 2013 postseason, Wilson totaled three touchdown passes (over three games).

Wilson especially shined on third down, which wasn’t his strongest area during the regular season.

On Saturday night, Wilson completed all eight of his third-down pass attempts for 199 yards and three touchdowns. During the regular season, Wilson had a pair of touchdowns and four interceptions on 128 pass attempts. His 48.8 Total QBR on third down during the regular season ranked 22nd of 33 qualifying quarterbacks.

For the game, the Panthers had more yards, first downs and a greater time of possession than the Seahawks. But the game swung on Seattle forcing three turnovers and committing none.

The key turnover came in the fourth quarter, when Seattle safety Kam Chancellor returned a Cam Newton interception 90 yards for a touchdown. That’s tied for the fifth-longest interception return for a touchdown in NFL postseason history and the longest since James Harrison’s 100-yard return in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XLIII win over the Cardinals.

Panthers vs. Seahawks: top defenses clash

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8

AP Photo/Damian StrohmeyerBased on the last three meetings between the Panthers and Seahawks, defense should rule again.
The reigning Super Bowl champions welcome the Carolina Panthers to Seattle on Saturday night in what figures to be a low-scoring affair.

Although Russell Wilson and Cam Newton steal plenty of headlines, the defenses of the Seahawks and Panthers will make the QBs earn every inch.

Here are a few things to keep an eye on as the Legion of Boom welcomes Superman.

Top stats to know: defense and zone-read
From Week 14 to Week 17, the Seahawks and Panthers rank first and second in the NFC, respectively, in total defense and defensive efficiency.

Seattle limited opponents to 39 points in its final six games (6.5 points per game). That’s the fewest points allowed by a team in the last six games of a season since 1978, when the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule.

Only the Eagles and Dolphins featured more zone-read rushes than the Seahawks (177) and the Panthers (104) this season.

In the three seasons since 2012, Newton leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards on zone-read plays (640), and Wilson leads with eight rushing touchdowns on zone-reads during that span.

The Seahawks have been susceptible to the zone-read this season. Seattle has allowed 3.3 yards per rush on plays without zone-read action compared to 4.8 yards per rush on zone-read carries this season.

Matchup to watch: Kuechly vs. Wagner
Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, two of the NFL’s top linebackers, won’t be on the field at the same time Saturday, but their play will be key.

Carolina's Kuechly dominated the Panthers’ wild-card playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals last week, with 10 tackles and an interception. He also made the key deflection on the Panthers’ final interception that sealed the game late in the fourth quarter.

Kuechly led all middle or inside linebackers this season in tackles, tackles for no gain or loss, pass breakups and disrupted dropbacks.

On the other side, Wagner has helped the Seahawks’ defense regain its Super Bowl form. Since Wagner returned in Week 12 after missing five games, Seattle has allowed the lowest Total QBR and the fewest rushing yards in the league.

How the Panthers win
The Panthers have played the Seahawks three times in the last three seasons (all in Carolina) and have come up just short each time.

Carolina led in the second half of all those games, but late turnovers have been costly. The Panthers have committed two turnovers in each game, and five of the six came after halftime.

The Panthers haven’t lost a game this season in which they won the turnover battle (6-0-1).

Did you know?
The last time the Panthers lost a road playoff game was in 2005 -- in Seattle. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme threw three interceptions, and Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns to lead Seattle to Super Bowl XL.

Top stats to know: Panthers def. Cardinals

January, 3, 2015
Jan 3
The Carolina Panthers joined the 2010 Seattle Seahawks as the only teams to win a playoff game after compiling a losing record in the regular season.

The Panthers are now 3-0 all time in the Wild Card playoffs, including 2-0 at home in those games. The Panthers won their first playoff game since 2005, when they defeated the Bears in the divisional playoffs.

Since 2000, teams with non-winning records are now 6-1 in wild-card games and teams with losing records are 2-0 in wild-card games.

Lack of Cardinals offense
The Panthers took advantage of a weak Arizona Cardinals offense by forcing turnovers and dominating the second half.

The Cardinals finished with 78 total yards, the fewest in a postseason game in NFL history. The previous record was held by the 1958 Browns (86 vs. Giants).

The Cardinals had 51 passing yards, the fewest by a team to throw multiple interceptions in a playoff game since the 1977 Broncos (26 passing yards, 4 interceptions vs. Cowboys). Their starting quarterback in that game (Super Bowl XII) was Craig Morton.

Ryan Lindley had 82 passing yards, the fifth-fewest in a playoff game by a player with at least 25 pass attempts and the fewest since Daunte Culpepper (78 vs. Giants) in 2000, according to the Elisa Sports Bureau.

Lindley was 1-of-7 for 21 yards and an interception on throws of at least 15 yards downfield.

The Cardinals didn't score on any offensive drives in the second half. They had four punts and two interceptions, plus a fumble lost on a kickoff. Their only points came late in the fourth quarter on a safety.

The Cardinals entered the playoffs with only 73 points in their final six games of the regular season, the fewest by a playoff team since the 1935 Giants (according to Elias).

Panthers rushing attack
Jonathan Stewart had 123 rushing yards, the second-most in a playoff game by a Panthers players. DeShaun Foster had 151 in 2005 against the Giants.

Stewart started off the scoring with his second postseason rushing touchdown, joining Foster as the only Panthers players with two career postseason rushing touchdowns.

The Panthers ran 13 zone-read rushes, their most in a single game since 2012 Week 4. Cam Newton gave the ball to his running back nine times, and they gained 59 yards on those plays (6.6 yards per rush).

Cardinals-Panthers NFC wild-card preview

January, 1, 2015
Jan 1

AP Images/Ross D. FranklinCam Newton and the Panthers host the Cardinals in the NFC wild-card round Saturday on ESPN.
The Carolina Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals in the opening game of wild-card weekend, which airs Saturday at 4:20 ET on ESPN.

This is the second postseason meeting between the teams, with the Cardinals winning 33-13 in Carolina in the 2008 NFC divisional playoffs.

Top stats to know
Both the Panthers and Cardinals enter the playoffs under unlikely circumstances.

The Panthers are the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after having a seven-game winless streak during the regular season (0-6-1). However, they were one of four teams to go undefeated in December this season.

The Cardinals may have to start Ryan Lindley, who has one career win, at quarterback if Drew Stanton is unable to play. According to Elias, Lindley would be the seventh quarterback to start a playoff game with one or fewer regular-season wins. The last quarterback to win a playoff game under such circumstances was Gifford Nielsen of the 1979 Oilers.

This will be the sixth wild-card playoff game between teams with a four-game difference in the win column. The team with fewer wins has gone 4-1.

One way the Panthers could continue that trend is by exploiting the Cardinals' defensive strategy.

Matchups to watch
Cam Newton and Greg Olsen vs Cardinals blitz
Under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals have blitzed on the highest percentage of dropbacks (46 percent). The strategy works as the Cardinals have allowed the fifth-fewest points the past two seasons, but it does leave them vulnerable against tight ends.

The Cardinals have allowed 25 touchdowns to tight ends the past two seasons, most in the NFL, and 17 have come when blitzing.

Greg Olsen set career highs with 84 receptions and 1,008 yards this season, ranking third among all tight ends in receptions and second in yards.

Olsen caught all five of his targets from Cam Newton last season against the Cardinals, but Newton finished the game 10-of-20 with zero touchdowns, three interceptions and seven sacks against the blitz.

Cardinals' deep passing vs. Panthers' improved defense
The Cardinals attempted an NFL-high 158 passes thrown at least 15 yards downfield this season, and connecting on them has been key.

The Cardinals have completed 39 percent with eight touchdowns and one interception on such passes in wins, but have completed 32 percent with three touchdowns and four interceptions in losses.

The Panthers made changes to their secondary prior to Week 14, promoting rookies Tre Boston and Bene' Benwikere into key roles. Since then, the Panthers have intercepted a league-high five passes on throws 15 or more yards downfield.

Did you know?
Under the current playoff format (since 1990), every NFL team has played in at least one wild-card game. The Cardinals (3-0) and Panthers (2-0) are two of the three teams (Houston Texans, 2-0) that have not lost a wild-card game in that time.

Top stats to know: Panthers at Eagles

November, 10, 2014
The Philadelphia Eagles host the Carolina Panthers on Monday Night Football tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

With Eagles quarterback Nick Foles out for 6-8 weeks with a broken collarbone, Mark Sanchez makes his first NFL start since the 2012 season finale with the Jets. Sanchez had a league-worst 25.8 Total QBR that season.

Sanchez won his last game in Week 14 of the 2012 season at Jacksonville -- 52 different quarterbacks have won at least one game since Sanchez's last victory.

The Eagles are 6-2, their best eight-game start since going 7-1 to open 2004. Last season, the Eagles were 3-5 after eight games.

The Eagles lead the league with 21 turnovers this season. They have committed at least one turnover in 12 straight games dating back to last season. Only three teams have a longer active streak.

But the Eagles also force turnovers. They have at least one takeaway in 20 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL. However, they’re only tied for 21st with 11 takeaways this season.

The Eagles average a play every 22.9 seconds of possession. That’s not only faster than last season’s rate, but it’s more than three seconds faster than the next-fastest team (Browns, 26.2).

The Panthers have lost three straight and have already exceeded their loss total from all of last season, when they went 12-4. Cam Newton, who completed a career-low 35.7 percent of his passes last week against the Saints, has gone two straight games without a touchdown pass for the first time in his career.

Newton has won both of his previous Monday Night starts, throwing for five touchdowns and no interceptions with a Total QBR of 90.3.

Slow starts have doomed the Panthers this season. They’ve been outscored 45-9 in the first half during their three-game losing streak, producing just three field goals.

The Panthers are allowing a league-high 4.84 yards per rush this season. They’ve also surrendered 11 rushing touchdowns, second-most behind the Falcons (13).

Keys to victory: 49ers 23, Panthers 10

January, 12, 2014
What were the keys to the San Francisco 49ers' 23-10 win over the Carolina Panthers?

49ers chew up the clock with long drives
The 49ers had five scoring drives in this game and they lasted a combined 52 plays.

The key drives in this game were the 49ers last one of the second quarter and first one of the third quarter, each of which resulted in touchdowns. In those two drives, the 49ers ran 25 plays that gained 153 yards over a span of 8 minutes and 18 seconds. The Panthers went three-and-out in between those two touchdowns.

It helped that Phil Dawson made all three of his field goal attempts. He has now made 35 of his last 36 attempts since going 0 for 2 against the St. Louis Rams in Week 4.

Kaepernick was able to throw it
Despite being heavily pressured through much of the game, Colin Kaepernick was successful when passing downfield. He was 6 for 8 for 136 yards on throws longer than 10 yards downfield in this game. He was 0 for 6 against the Panthers in the Week 10 loss.

His 23-yard throw to Quinton Patton and 45-yard throw to Anquan Boldin were longer than any throw he completed in the previous game against the Panthers.

Boldin was the biggest beneficiary of Kaepernick’s passes. He finished with eight catches for 136 yards. Kaepernick was 4 for 4 on his second-half throws, all of which went to Boldin. Three of those passes resulted in first downs. The fourth was a yard shy of the first down.

Vernon Davis also had a touchdown catch. His seven postseason touchdown receptions are tied with Dave Casper for the most by a tight end in NFL history.

Newton struggled when pressured
The 49ers were successful when they were able to get to Cam Newton.

Newton had more passes caught by the 49ers (two) than his teammates (one) in the four instances in which he got a throw away under duress.

Newton was sacked five times. The Panthers went 0-4 this season in games in which Newton was sacked at least five times.

The Panthers failed to capitalize on the opportunities they did get. They ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-yard line during the game and did not score a touchdown.

Stats of the Day
The 49ers snapped their four-game road losing streak in the divisional round. This was their first playoff road win in that round since beating the Minnesota Vikings during the 1970 postseason.

The 49ers are the fourth NFL team to win 30 postseason games, joining the Dallas Cowboys (33), Pittsburgh Steelers (33) and Green Bay Packers (30).

This will be the 49ers' 15th appearance in an AFC/NFC championship game, tying the Steelers for the most all-time.

The 49ers are the first NFC team under the current playoff format (since 1990) to return to the Conference Championship the season after losing the Super Bowl.

The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Jim Harbaugh became the first head coach to lead his team to the AFC/NFC Championship Game in each of his first three seasons.
The Carolina Panthers defeated the San Francisco 49ers 10-9 in Week 10 as the defense clamped down and forced a career-worst performance out of Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick’s 7.7 Total QBR that day was his lowest in any game. How the Panthers were able to slow him is just one of the key matchups to watch Sunday.

49ers’ offensive line vs. Panthers’ pass rush
The six sacks taken by Kaepernick in Week 10 were the most in his career, but he was also put under duress on an additional four dropbacks. Kaepernick went 0-of-3 passing and scrambled for 1 yard on those plays.

The Panthers finished the regular season with an NFL-high 60 sacks and the pass rush was only getting stronger as the season ended. The Panthers were able to sack Drew Brees and Matt Ryan a combined 15 times the last two games of the season, with Greg Hardy accounting for nearly half (7.0).

Crabtree, Boldin, Davis vs. Panthers’ secondary
It's worth noting that Michael Crabtree wasn’t available for the Week 10 game.

With Crabtree joining Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, the 49ers may be able to ease some of the pressure and better take advantage of a secondary that allowed opponents to complete two-thirds of their passes this season, the third-highest opponents' completion percentage in the NFL.

Kaepernick has completed 64 percent of his passes this season when Crabtree, Boldin and Davis are all on field. If any of them leaves the field, his completion percentage dips to 56 percent.

Crabtree was targeted 13 times in the wild-card round against the Green Bay Packers, his second-most targets in a game in his career.

The 49ers' offense may have its hands full, but the Panthers' offense will also have some key matchups to win.

Cam Newton vs. the 49ers’ adjustments
Newton may have gotten the win in Week 10, but he finished the game with a season-low 50 percent completion percentage and a 19.6 Total QBR (third worst of season). Newton may have actually benefited too from an atypical 49ers strategy.

The 49ers sent four or fewer rushers 81 percent of the time this season (second highest in the NFL), but did so only 68 percent of the time in Week 10. Newton was solid against five or more pass-rushers (6-of-10 passing), but went 10-of-22 with an interception against four or fewer.

If the 49ers send rushers at their normal rates, Newton may struggle even more.

Panthers’ rushers vs. 49ers’ tacklers
One of the keys to victory in Week 10 was a 27-yard touchdown run by DeAngelo Williams late in the first half.

The play was notable because Williams was able to gain the final 16 yards of the rush after being contacted. Prior to that play, the 49ers hadn’t allowed 16 yards after contact on a single rush in any game since the start of the 2010 season.

The Panthers finished the game with 61 rush yards after contact, an average of 1.97 per rush. Both remain the most this season against the 49ers, who finished the regular season as the NFL's best in both categories.

Challenges await Kaepernick, Newton

January, 8, 2014

ESPN Stats & InformationColin Kaepernick’s game-by-game QBR has varied based on the strength of his opponents.
Sunday’s NFC Divisional Playoff game features a matchup between two exciting, young, dual-threat quarterbacks looking to lead their teams one step closer to the Super Bowl.

Both Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton led their teams to 12-4 records in the regular season this year, but they have been relatively inconsistent compared with other good quarterbacks. Each of them has at least five excellent games with a Total QBR of at least 80 this season, but each also has three abysmal games with a QBR below 20. Besides Andy Dalton, no other quarterbacks have that number of both great and terrible performances this year.

One explanation for this apparent inconsistency that applies to both Kaepernick and Newton is the difference in how they perform based on the quality of opposing defenses. If we divide up the 32 NFL defenses in half by opponent QBR rank – that is, defenses 1 to 16 in terms of lowest opponent QBR allowed in the top half, and defenses 17 to 32 in that category in the bottom half – and then break down each player’s performance across those categories, some startling differences emerge.

First off, Kaepernick dominated below-average QBR defenses in the regular season, going 9-0 with 18 total touchdowns and no turnovers, good for a league-best 91.2 QBR against those 16 defenses. That doesn’t include another stellar performance (88.8 QBR) against the defensively challenged Packers last Sunday at Lambeau Field.

On the other hand, his performance against upper-half QB defenses has been poor. In those games, he has more interceptions than touchdowns and has a QBR of 31.2, good for 24th out of 34 QBs with at least 150 action plays against those opponents.

The chart above shows all nine of his games (10 if you count the playoffs) with a QBR greater than 70 have come against poor QBR defenses, and he’s had a QBR significantly better than average in only one out of seven games against upper-half QBR defenses.

While the split is not as extreme for Newton, he, too, has cleaned up against bad defenses while struggling against good ones. Newton, Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are the only quarterbacks to be undefeated with at least five starts against below-average QBR defenses, but Newton’s production and his team’s record are mediocre against defenses more adept at controlling opposing signal-callers.

Below are Newton’s QBR game scores plotted by opponent strength. While the line is not as steep as with Kaepernick, most of Newton’s top performances this year have been against average-or-worse defenses, and almost all his bad performances have come against solid opposition. One exception is his 74.7 Total QBR against Seattle, good for second-best by any QB against the league’s top-ranked QBR defense this year.

ESPN Stats & Information

The difference in performance for Kaepernick and Newton is well beyond the average drop-off for this split. The NFL average QBR this season is about 45 against defenses in the top half, compared with about 63 against the lower tier.

Compare that 18-point swing to Kaepernick’s 60-point drop and a near 40-point difference for Newton. Among the 27 quarterbacks who have had at least 150 action plays against each group of defenses, those are the two largest such QBR differences.

The domination of poor defenses by these two quarterbacks is what got them to this point, but the bad news is there are no more such opponents left in the NFC playoffs. The competition gets tougher right away, as Kaepernick and Newton will face each other’s defenses, units that ranked sixth (49ers) and seventh (Panthers) in terms of Total QBR allowed in the regular season.

Neither quarterback wants a repeat of the regular-season meeting between these teams in San Francisco back in Week 10. The defenses limited them to a combined total of 218 net yards (including passing, rushing and sacks), no touchdowns and two interceptions in a 10-9 Carolina victory. Newton’s 19.6 Total QBR was the third-lowest score he put up this season, while Kaepernick’s 7.7 QBR was his career low as a starter.

One of these quarterbacks will have to play well against a top defense to help his team to the next round. But if each quarterback continues the trend of poor performance against quality competition, we could be in for another defensive struggle Sunday in Charlotte.

Defensive rookie of the year favorites

December, 11, 2013

USA TODAY SportsSheldon Richardson (left) and Kiko Alonso have had outstanding rookie campaigns on defense.
As the NFL season closes in on the end of the regular season, ESPN Stats & Info looks at some of the leading candidates for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award.

ILB Kiko Alonso, Bills
Alonso, the 46th pick, has 131 tackles on the season. That’s 30 more than the next closest rookie and only eight behind Vontaze Burfict for the NFL lead. Alonso also has four interceptions, more than all other rookie linebackers combined.

The Buffalo Bills allowed an opponent Total QBR of 65 from 2010 to 2012. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense was worse in that span. Alonso has helped bring that down to 42 in 2013, sixth-best in the NFL.

In terms of defensive expected points added -- which takes into account everything a defense does to affect the score -- the Bills have gone from negative-90 in 2012 (29th) to positive-28 in 2013 (eighth). Alonso has been on the field for every defensive snap.

DE Sheldon Richardson, Jets
Taken by the New York Jets with the 13th pick, Richardson has helped turn around a run defense that was uncharacteristically generous in 2012. The Jets allowed 4.3 yards per rush and 1.7 yards after contact per rush. This year, they are allowing 3.1 yards per rush (best in NFL) and 1.2 yards after contact per rush.

Richardson has 65 tackles on defense this season, 20 more than the next closest rookie defensive lineman and one more than 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Twenty-seven of those tackles were for a loss or no gain. Only Watt has more, with 31.

DT Star Lotulelei, Panthers
The Carolina Panthers have allowed 3.4 yards per rush on first and second down with Lotulelei on the field. Opponents are averaging 4.7 yards per rush with Lotulelei off the field on those downs.

Lotulelei’s run defense has led to a Carolina defense that has added 53 expected points on 446 snaps with Lotulelei. With Lotulelei on the sideline, the Panthers have added only eight expected points on 319 defensive snaps.

Honorable Mention
DB Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals (tore ACL in Week 14)

Matchups to watch: Panthers vs Saints

December, 6, 2013
What are the key statistical matchups in the Sunday night clash between the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints? We'll give you one for each quarterback, as well as an under-the radar noteworthy matchup on special teams.

Cam Newton vs the blitz
Cam Newton has faced five or more pass rushers on 42 percent of his dropbacks this season, the highest rate in the NFL.

But he’s handled that pressure very well during the Panthers eight-game winning streak. He’s completed 64 percent of his throws against it, with seven touchdowns, two interceptions and only eight sacks. His Total QBR against pass rushes of five or more was 11.1 in the first four games of the season, but 90.0 during the winning streak.

The Saints have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 8.5 percent of dropbacks, the second-highest percentage in the NFL (trailing only the Buffalo Bills, 8.7 percent).

Newton has been a little shaky in the two games in which the Panthers have played a winning team on the road (the opponents being the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals). His Total QBR is 10.4

Panthers secondary vs. Drew Brees deep throws
Drew Brees has excelled on throws at least 15 yards downfield, but last week against the Seahawks, he struggled significantly with them, going 0 for 8.

Brees had completed at least three such throws in every other game this season, and had completed at least half of those passes in each of his previous five games. For the season, he has 13 touchdowns and two interceptions on throws of that length, the plus-11 differential tied with Nick Foles for the best in the league.

It would be unlike Brees to have two bad games in a row on these throws, but the Panthers are well equipped to stop him.

The Panthers have the highest rate of interceptions per attempt on throws at least 15 yards downfield (11 percent). They’ve picked off nine throws of that length this season, including at least one in four of the last five games. And they’ve only allowed three touchdowns.

Also of note for the Panthers with regards to stopping Jimmy Graham: Panthers opponents have completed 68 percent of their passes when targeting tight ends. That's a high success rate-- the 10th-highest against any team in the NFL.

Under-the-Radar Key: Thomas Morstead vs Ted Ginn Jr.
Saints punter Thomas Morstead and his coverage team will face a challenge this week in Ted Ginn Jr., who ranks sixth in the NFL at 12.2 yards per punt return.

The Saints have netted an average of 43 yards per punt this season, the second-highest average in the NFL. Opponents have had an average post-punt field position of the 23-yard line. Only two teams have put their opponents in a tougher position.

Ginn has four punt returns of at least 20 yards this season. The Saints are one of four teams to not allow a return of 20 yards or longer.

Everything working for Panthers

December, 3, 2013

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsThe Panthers are on a win streak due in large part to improved play from Cam Newton.

Following the Carolina Panthers' loss in Week 5, the team dropped to No. 26 in the weekly NFL Power Rankings. Eight wins later, the Panthers are now ranked No. 3, their highest ranking since Week 17 of 2008.

The Panthers have been firing on all cylinders during the win streak, with big contributions from Cam Newton, the defense and Ron Rivera.

Newton handling added pressure

Cam Newton’s season may end up being defined by game-winning drives against the Patriots and Dolphins, but he has stepped up his overall level of play during the win streak after a poor start.

Newton has posted a 71.6 Total QBR during the win streak, sixth best in the NFL during that span. He posted a 33.9 Total QBR through the first four games of the season (29th), when the Panthers went just 1-3.

The big improvement for Newton from the first four games to the past eight was his performance against five or more pass-rushers.

Newton has faced such pressure at the highest rate this season (42 percent of his dropbacks) and early on he struggled. In the Panthers’ Week 5 loss, Newton took seven sacks and threw all three of his interceptions when the Cardinals brought five or more pass-rushers. Since that game, however, Newton has thrown only two interceptions and taken eight sacks against such pressure.

In addition to improved passing, Newton has also been carrying the load on the ground. During the win streak, Newton leads the team in rushing (324 yards) and rushing touchdowns (5). Most of his rushing has been done on scrambles, with an NFL-leading 221 scramble yards during the win streak.

Panthers D tops in NFL

The Panthers have allowed a league-low 13.1 points per game this season, which has been bolstered by the 12.4 points allowed per game during their win streak.

This season the Panthers have allowed a touchdown on only 32.1 percent of opponent’s red zone drives (27.8 percent during the streak). Not only is that best in the NFL this season, it’s the best percentage since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002.

Opponents have reached the red zone 28 times against the Panthers, with nine of those drives ending in touchdowns. The Panthers have held their opponents scoreless on a trip to the red zone seven times.

Analytical Riverboat Ron

Last season Ron Rivera was criticized for electing to punt on a fourth-and-1 at the Falcons’ 45-yard line with just more than a minute remaining. The Falcons drove 77 yards on five plays to kick the game-winning field goal after the punt.

This season, Rivera has been “going for it” more frequently, and it has paid off.

During the win streak, the Panthers are 8-of-8 on fourth-down conversions (on seven different drives). One of those attempts ended the game against the Buccaneers in Week 13. The other six drives all resulted in touchdowns.

Six of the conversions have been when the Panthers were either tied or in the lead (all with 1 yard to go). In Rivera’s first 36 games as coach, the Panthers had seven fourth-down conversions when tied or leading (on 10 attempts).

Under the radar NFL stars: WR, TE, defense

November, 29, 2013
These under the radar stars have played as well as anyone at their respective positions this season. Let's take a closer look at how these emerging stars have found success.

Wide receiver: Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers' fourth-year wide receiver entered Week 13 with the NFL lead in receptions while trailing only Calvin Johnson in receiving yards. Brown's 51 receiving first downs accounted for 35 percent of the Steelers' team total in that category, the fourth-highest percentage in the NFL.
Antonio Brown

Brown added five receptions and 59 yards to his impressive 2013 season totals on Thanksgiving. That makes 12 straight games with at least five receptions and fifty receiving yards for Brown. The last player with a streak that long in a single season was Laveranues Coles in 2002 (13 games).

Tight end: Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
Julius Thomas has 10 receiving touchdowns in 10 games, tying Shannon Sharpe's franchise record for receiving touchdowns in a season by a tight end. The all-time record for touchdowns by a tight end was set in 2011 by Rob Gronkowski with 17. Two are tied for second with 13.
Julius Thomas

Thomas' impact on the Broncos' offense is not limited to his work down near the goal line. Peyton Manning is having an historic season but isn't the same without his star tight end on the field.

Manning has a Total QBR of just 32 in the 90 action plays that Thomas hasn't been on the field this season.

For the sake of comparison, Manning has a Total QBR of 93 in 71 action plays without his favorite slot receiver, Wes Welker.

Defense: Star Lotulelei, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have drafted defense with their last two first round picks and the strategy appears to have paid off. After allowing more than 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground in 2011, the Panthers are on pace to allow around 1,300 yards and four rushing touchdowns in 2013.
Star Lotulelei

Rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei has played a huge role in that turnaround. The Panthers are allowing 3.4 yards per rush and 1.6 yards before contact with Lotulelei on the field. Carolina’s defense has allowed 4.6 yards per rush and 3.0 yards before contact per rush with Lotulelei off the field.

Keys to victory: Panthers 24, Patriots 20

November, 19, 2013
What were the keys to victory for the Carolina Panthers in their 24-20 victory Monday over the New England Patriots?

Newton made things happen in tough spots
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made the best of difficult situations throughout the game.

Newton went 8-for-11 for 98 yards and a touchdown in situations in which the Patriots sent at least five pass-rushers. His first-quarter touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell came against a six-man rush.

Newton also had four rushes for 56 yards on third down, with each of those rushes leading to a Panthers first down. The Panthers finished 8-for-11 on third down, the second-best conversion rate (73 percent) by any team in a game this season.

The highlight of those runs was when Newton eluded six defenders and covered 75.8 yards of ground (running both up the field and across the field) on a 14-yard scramble midway through the third quarter. The Panthers would score on that drive, on a touchdown throw to Greg Olsen that put Carolina up 17-10 late in the third quarter.

Newton had his third game this season with at least three touchdown passes. He totaled three such games in 2011 and 2012 combined. He threw for 57 yards and rushed for 18 yards on the Panthers' final drive Monday, which produced Carolina’s go-ahead score.

Newton also became the first player in NFL history with at least 10,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing in his first three seasons.

Newton finished with a Total QBR of 91.9, raising his season QBR to 59.6. That's better than his rival for Monday's game -- Tom Brady, whose Total QBR stands at 57.9.

The Panthers did not turn the ball over against the Patriots -- whose streak of 36 consecutive games with a takeaway was the longest in the NFL entering the day.

The Panthers now hold that distinction, with a takeaway in 14 straight games.

And speaking of Carolina’s defense …

Panthers defense survives the last drive
The Carolina defense was just good enough to survive Brady’s comeback attempt. Brady was 4-for-11 for 52 yards and an interception (albeit a controversial one) on the final drive of the game.

Brady’s means of keeping up with Newton earlier in the game was to throw the ball short. He was 19-of-20 for 139 yards and a touchdown on throws 5 yards for fewer downfield. He became the sixth quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 4,000 complete passes.

Elias Sports Bureau Stat of the Day
The Panthers became the fourth team in NFL history to beat the 49ers and Patriots in consecutive games in the regular season. The last team to do it was the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, who ended their season with a loss in the Super Bowl.

There have been two other instances in which a team beat the 49ers and Patriots in consecutive games -- the last two NFL champs (New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens) have done so in the conference championship and Super Bowl.

Stat Your Case: Is Cam Newton for real?

November, 18, 2013

Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton's career has had plenty of excitement -- and disappointment.

The Carolina Panthers host the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football" in what could be the biggest game of Cam Newton’s career. Newton and the Panthers have been rolling in their past five games, but is Newton for real? ESPN Stats & Information takes a closer look at both sides of the argument.

Newton is not legit

Newton has not put his best foot forward against good teams. Since he entered the league in 2011, the Panthers are 4-17 against teams that finished the season at or above .500 (for 2013, we used the team’s current record). Newton has thrown 21 touchdowns and 29 interceptions with a 40.4 Total QBR in those games.

In his previous big NFL games, he has struggled. You could argue his first marquee game was Thursday night football in Week 3 last season when the Panthers hosted the Giants. Newton threw three interceptions and no touchdowns in a 36-7 loss.

Last week, the Panthers had a signature win over the 49ers, but Newton did not have a touchdown and completed just 50 percent of his passes. He was credited with his third career game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime after leading the Panthers on a 9-yard drive capped by a 53-yard field goal.

His three career game-winning drives are tied for 24th in the NFL since 2011. The other two drives were against the Jaguars in 2011 and the Eagles in 2012, when they were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak.

His Total QBR in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game is 36.5 in his career, ranked 21st of 24 qualified quarterbacks since 2011.

He has the Panthers on a five-game win streak now, albeit coming off his lowest Total QBR (19.3) in a win in his career -- against the 49ers. The Panthers' previous four opponents in the win streak are currently a combined 9-28.

-Doug Clawson

Newton is for real

Newton has led the Panthers to five straight wins, the franchise’s longest win streak since 2005.

The Panthers average 33:48 time of possession per game, highest in the NFL. A big reason for that is because Newton has a nose for the sticks. He has rushed for a first down on 36.5 percent of his rushes, second only to teammate Mike Tolbert. Newton has 16 rushing first downs on third down this year, more than any other player in the NFL entering Week 11.

But Newton has always been able to run. Where he has made real improvements is through the air, particularly on short throws -- 77.9 percent of his pass attempts have been less than 15 yards downfield this season, the highest rate of his career. Newton’s 83.4 Total QBR on those throws is third-best in the NFL and by far the best of his career.

Newton has also become a much more accurate passer on all types of throws this season. He has completed a career-best 63 percent of his passes this year. Even more impressive, Newton has over- or underthrown his receiver on a career-best 17 percent of his passes, 5 percentage points lower than his off-target rate last season.

-Michael Bonzagni

The evolution of Newton and the Panthers

November, 6, 2013

AP Photo/Chris O’MearaCam Newton has had plenty to smile about of late.
Three teams in the NFC have double-digit wins since last Thanksgiving, and you probably could name the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, but would you also have guessed the Carolina Panthers?

The surprise team of the NFC, the Panthers are on a roll, winning five of their past six games with the largest scoring differential in the league during that stretch.

Cam Newton has found another gear in his third season, and along with one of the league’s best defenses, the Panthers are poised for a run. A marquee matchup this week with the San Francisco 49ers is one of only two games in Week 10 between teams currently seeded in the playoffs.

Newton is already known for his ground attack, leading all quarterbacks with 182 rushes and 12 rushing touchdowns since the start of last season.

Among quarterbacks with at least 25 rush attempts over that span (approximately one per game), Newton’s average of 1.41 yards per rush after contact leads the league. His opposing quarterback Sunday, Colin Kaepernick, ranks 11th with an average of 0.78 yards per rush after contact.

That said, Newton will face his toughest test yet against a 49ers defense that has allowed an NFL-low 1.07 yards after contact per rush to all rushers this season.

Newton also has posted career highs in Total QBR and completion percentage this season. He currently ranks 10th in completion percentage, compared to Kaepernick's ranking of 28th.

Newton’s improved numbers coincide with a shift in his approach to the passing game.

In his first two seasons, Newton ranked fourth in the NFL in average air yards per throw, trailing only Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning in pass attempts more than 15 yards downfield. And for a while, it worked.

This season, Newton has struggled with the deep ball, ranking last in completion percentage on throws more than 15 air yards.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
ESPN Stats & InformationAfter thriving on deep throws his first two seasons, Cam Newton has thrived in 2013 on throws 15 yards or fewer.

To their credit, the Panthers have adjusted, and Newton’s game has evolved in Year 3. His profile has changed from "deep passer" to one of the best in the NFL at the underneath throw.

Newton ranks third in the NFL and leads the NFC with a 74.6 completion percentage on attempts of 15 yards or fewer. He leads the NFC and trails only Peyton Manning with a Total QBR of 85.5 on such passes.

His adjustment in pass length could work well against a 49ers defense known for playing a deep Cover 2, which should encourage Newton to take what the 49ers give him and keep it clean underneath.

With Newton finding his stride and a Carolina defense that ranks second in the NFL in rushing and scoring defense, the Panthers will be a tough matchup in what could be a playoff preview with the 49ers Sunday.