It's become increasingly clear with each passing game that it's the Carolina Panthers, and not the Falcons, who are the biggest threat to the Saints winning another NFC South title. That team is quietly back to 3-3 and they look extremely good defensively. Consider these stats: they are 2nd in the league in points given up at only 13.8 per game! They are 3rd overall in the NFL as a unit, 5th against the pass and 4th against the run. You'll remember my obsession with Star Lotulelei entering the draft, and so far he's absolutely proving to be one of the very best prospects of the draft class by anchoring the Panthers' interior very well. Cam Newton is actually playing quite well, surprisingly, and it's not secret they can run the ball.
Most shocking, perhaps, is how complete the Panthers are top to bottom. Their weakness in my opinion is at quarterback, which is funny because most people associate the Panthers with Cam Newton. While he's viewed as the future he's not up to the level expected of him in the present, but he's getting better. Their special teams have gotten a huge boost from Ted Ginn who has completely transformed the explosiveness of their return game. Somehow Graham Gano, their kicker, has yet to miss an attempt this year (9 for 9) including three 50+ yarders.
But don't be fooled by the Panthers being 28th in passing. Newton has a rating of 95.0. They are efficient and getting effectiveness out of their passing attack. The Panthers run the ball, control the clock and play elite defense. How they are 3-3 is actually quite surprising given how they've played. But they've lost 12-7 to Seattle and a heartbreaker to the Bills at the end fo the game. While they are sound from top to bottom, what they really miss is a superstar player. The Panthers are very good across the board, except maybe at quarterback (where they still have lots of talent), but they don't have anything elite. I consider Brees, Graham and maybe Sproles as elite players. The Panthers don't have anyone in that class. Lotulelei may be there soon. But I think sometimes the Panthers can play down to their competition because of the way they play. Running down the clock and keeping the score low means you are susceptible to one big play late killing you. The flip side is you control the game and force the other team to play your style of football. That will be both their calling card and achilles heel all season.
The Panthers have yet to play an NFC South game, though, and I think they have to feel pretty good about two games against the Bucs and Falcons each. Those are both very favorable matchups for them. The two games against the Saints will be huge.