Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Haason Reddick isn’t easily fooled. Both his sacks1 of New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston in Week 2 came on play-action fakes that he completely ignored. So when Reddick was asked after the game if he was surprised at the Panthers’ 2-0 start, he kept it one hundred: “I wouldn’t lie,” he said. “Right now, we are exceeding where I thought we could be and it’s surprising to me.”
Reddick isn’t alone. Fresh off a dominating 38-3 performance against the Green Bay Packers in which Winston threw five touchdowns, the Saints were viewed as the better team by most coming into the game against Carolina. The markets had New Orleans as 3-point favorites on the road — implying the Panthers had about a 57 percent chance of losing. Instead, the Panthers slapped a 26-7 drubbing on New Orleans and remained tied for first atop the NFC South with last year’s Super Bowl Champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Panthers head into Thursday night’s game against the Houston Texans with around a 75 percent chance2 to go 3-0 to start the season for the fifth time in franchise history. It’s a start that has the potential to get fans in Carolina extremely excited: The Panthers made the playoffs in three of those four previous 3-0 seasons, and twice they went all the way to the Super Bowl.3 And the Panthers’ success mirrors the league base rate: Since 1978, 198 teams have started the year 3-0, and 149 (75.3 percent) of them ended up making the playoffs.
But unlike in 2015 when quarterback Cam Newton was dominating the league with his arm and legs en route to the MVP award, the 2021 version of the Panthers is winning largely with their defense. Through two weeks, Carolina has the top-ranked defense as measured by expected points added per play (-0.25), defensive success rate (67.3 percent), third-down conversion rate allowed (25 percent) and yards per play allowed (3.69), according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. In these two games, the Panthers have been dominant against both the run and the pass. They’re allowing just 2.7 yards per rush and have the highest percentage of sacks per dropback in the NFL (13.9 percent) paired with a league-leading 10 sacks.
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It’s a different story on offense, though. In the most important measures, the Panthers rank slightly below average. Their offensive EPA per play ranks 17th and their yards per play ranks 18th in the league. Star running back Christian McCaffrey is off to an unspectacular start on the ground — he ranks sixth in rushing yards (170), averaging 3.8 yards per rush — but continues to be a dangerous weapon as a receiving back. McCaffrey is tied for the team lead in receptions, matching Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore’s 14 catches and 11 yards per reception.
Still, the Panthers’ biggest question mark is behind center. Last season, Sam Darnold was one of the worst QBs in the league, albeit on a dysfunctional Jets team. His past should probably inform our expectations moving forward, but there are some promising signs. Darnold’s Total QBR through two games of 66.3 isn’t dominant, but it is good for sixth in the league. He’s averaging 8 yards per attempt and has thrown three touchdowns, with only one interception, and has taken just three sacks. And Darnold has been particularly good from a clean pocket, ranking fourth in the NFL with a Raw QBR of 84.8. The Panthers offensive line ranks 30th in pass block win rate, however, and if it can’t provide him with an unbothered view of the field, Darnold’s performance seems unlikely to continue.
The competition Darnold has faced hasn’t been the best, either. Pro Football Focus has the Panthers’ early season strength of schedule as the seventh-easiest, but the 11th-hardest moving forward — and that includes a game against the Houston Texans. It’s also true that NFL teams really can’t rely on defense to carry them throughout a season, which should also serve to temper expectations.
All of this makes it difficult to rank the Panthers based on team strength. Across sports media, there is a wide spread of opinions on where to slot Carolina, with Football Outsiders going so far as to make them their No. 1 team, by their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average metric, heading into Week 3.
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Now, to be fair, Football Outsiders does have a metric called DAVE — a recursive acronym that stands for DVOA Adjusted for Volatility Early that attempts to give a more accurate projection of future team performance early in a season — which has Carolina ranked 18th. But even if you ignore DAVE, Football Outsiders won’t have to die alone on this hill: Pro Football Network moved the Panthers up 18 slots in their rankings to No. 7 on the strength of their first two games. And CBS bumped them up 12 spots to 11th.
Here at FiveThirtyEight, our Elo model has strong early season priors and is fairly conservative, ranking Carolina as the 18th best team in the NFL — despite giving it a 45-point bump in Elo after the Panthers defeated the Saints. But perhaps Football Outsiders is on to something and a playoff run is on order this year. It seems improbable, but so did Darnold’s QB transformation.
Check out our latest NFL predictions.
CORRECTION (Sept. 23, 2021, 11:10 a.m.): In an earlier version of this article, Football Outsider’s DAVE metric was characterized as new for this season. The metric has also been used in previous seasons.