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The Panthers Have A Good Shot At 16-0, Even If They Rest Their Starters

Last time we checked in with the Carolina Panthers, we declared them the worst team ever to start a season 11-0. At the time, this was due primarily to a scoring margin and passing attack that didn’t quite measure up to those of previous undefeateds. Since then, the Panthers have kept on winning — scoring at least 38 points in three consecutive games, winning twice by a field goal and once by, well, 38 — and Cam Newton has looked like one of the best quarterbacks in football. With the Panthers at 14-0, the question is no longer how they got to this rarified record, but how far they can take it.

(In case you’re wondering, the Panthers’ Elo rating is now the worst of any 14-0 team. But because only three other historical teams even fit that description, picking out differences among this group is a little like figuring who’s the shortest among Manute Bol, Gheorghe Muresan, Shawn Bradley and Yao Ming. It’s a big deal to be 14-0 — and counting — and the narrower the field becomes, the less instructive it is to compare a team to its historical analogs by record.)

The biggest recent development for the Panthers: Newton has caught statistical fire over his past few games. By ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating (QBR), he’s been among the league’s top 10 QBs in each of the past three weeks, and was No. 1 with a 97.3 QBR in Week 14. And whether we go by QBR or a simpler box score-based measure such as adjusted net yards per passing attempt (ANY/A), Newton has been one of NFL’s most improved quarterbacks during the season’s second half:

Newton saved his best for last
Cam Newton CAR 5.8 46.9 8.8 84.6 +3.1 +37.7
Marcus Mariota TEN 5.9 42.0 6.6 72.9 +0.7 +30.9
Alex Smith KC 6.4 49.5 7.4 78.8 +1.0 +29.3
Sam Bradford PHI 4.9 29.6 6.9 55.8 +2.0 +26.2
Russell Wilson SEA 6.2 63.5 10.2 88.0 +3.9 +24.5
Kirk Cousins WSH 5.5 58.8 8.2 75.0 +2.8 +16.2
Matthew Stafford DET 5.4 50.1 6.8 64.2 +1.5 +14.1
Teddy Bridgewater MIN 5.5 61.9 6.4 70.7 +0.8 +8.8
Tyrod Taylor BUF 6.8 62.6 7.7 70.0 +1.0 +7.4
Ben Roethlisberger PIT 7.0 73.2 7.6 79.9 +0.6 +6.7
Ryan Tannehill MIA 5.6 35.6 5.8 40.3 +0.2 +4.7
Jameis Winston TB 6.3 58.7 6.6 62.6 +0.3 +3.9
Drew Brees NO 7.1 68.8 6.4 72.2 -0.7 +3.4
Eli Manning NYG 7.2 67.4 6.7 64.8 -0.5 -2.6
Carson Palmer ARI 9.1 84.8 8.1 82.0 -1.0 -2.8
Andy Dalton CIN 8.3 76.7 7.3 67.2 -1.0 -9.5
Jay Cutler CHI 6.5 64.6 7.2 54.3 +0.7 -10.3
Philip Rivers SD 7.3 66.3 5.5 53.3 -1.9 -13.0
Brian Hoyer HOU 7.1 69.4 5.4 55.0 -1.8 -14.4
Nick Foles STL 5.9 37.2 3.2 20.2 -2.6 -17.0
Aaron Rodgers GB 7.7 79.5 5.8 62.1 -1.9 -17.4
Matt Ryan ATL 6.8 66.4 4.9 49.0 -1.9 -17.4
Tom Brady NE 8.6 73.3 6.7 55.2 -1.9 -18.1
Derek Carr OAK 8.0 65.8 5.7 44.6 -2.3 -21.2
Ryan Fitzpatrick NYJ 6.5 78.4 6.8 56.7 +0.3 -21.7
Blake Bortles JAX 6.0 61.4 6.7 38.2 +0.7 -23.2

Source: TruMedia

Through Week 12, the Panthers were not throwing the ball like a championship team. Indexed to the league average, their per-pass expected points added (EPA) at that time would have bested only 27 percent of post-merger Super Bowl winners. However, their per-pass EPA since then would rank better than 98 percent of historical champs, and on the season, Carolina’s passing efficiency is now a tick better than the average Super Bowl winner since the merger. Finally, the Panthers’ quest to become the inverse 2007 Patriots includes some elite passing.

So what are their chances of completing the undefeated run? Our current Elo ratings say they will beat both the Falcons and Buccaneers to go 16-0 about 67 percent of the time. But that’s an oversimplification because Carolina might be able to rest its key players for some or all of the season’s final game if the Panthers lock up the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed with a win over Atlanta on Sunday. (Elo assigns this contingency a 74 percent probability of happening.) Working in the opposite direction, there’s also the matter of Carolina’s underlying talent. In other words: Is Elo giving the team a fair shake for its full-season body of work, or are they better represented by Newton’s recent Superman impression under center?

Since the answer to that question is an eye-of-the-beholder kind of deal, we worked through a few contingencies. But if we assume Newton’s second-half passing improvement is legitimate, the Panthers’ true Elo could be as high as 1806, which would rank them among the greatest teams in NFL history. In that case, they’d have a 78 percent probability of becoming only the second team ever to post a 16-0 regular-season record.

No 1712 67%
No 1806 78
Half Week 17 1609 60
Full Week 17 1516 49

Then again, if Panthers coach Ron Rivera decides to rest his starters, the Panthers’ path to 16-0 becomes more difficult. But thanks to the late-season schedule gifting Carolina two relatively weak divisional opponents in Weeks 16 and 17, it’s far from impossible.

If we assume Carolina plays Week 16 at its current strength according to Elo and its starters play only half of Week 17 against Tampa Bay, the team’s chance of going undefeated drops to 60 percent. To simulate a Week 17 in which the starters don’t play at all, we assumed that QB Derek Anderson is a replacement-level passer, that Carolina’s defense will drop to an average level with Luke Kuechly and friends sitting out, and that the Panthers’ top backs and receivers will play sparingly; even in that case, the probability of the Panthers going 16-0 only falls to about 49 percent.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll in all likelihood debate the prudence of a team resting its starters once it’s locked up a bye week and home field advantage. It’s a fair consideration, but secondary to the reality of the Panthers’ run to perfection. When discussing the Golden State Warriors’ odds of going 73-9, we said that whether or not Golden State does break the record is for now far less interesting than if it can. In the case of the 2015 Carolina Panthers, the latter question has been answered in the emphatic, and the former is all that stands between the Panthers and history. Worst case, it’s a coin flip.

Check out our NFL predictions for each team’s chances of advancing to the playoffs and winning Super Bowl 50.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.