Panthers create NFC South chaos, put Christmas pressure on Tom … – USA TODAY

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They were supposed to roll over and tank for a top draft pick. They fired their coach and traded their star player.  

Now they strike fear in the hearts of a team quarterbacked by the GOAT.

The Carolina Panthers are hot in pursuit of the NFC South division title and the prize of hosting a home playoff game thanks to their throttling of the upstart Detroit Lions – who entered winners in six of their previous seven – on Saturday, 37-23. 

By doing so, the Panthers (6-9) kept dialing up the pressure on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-8) and Tom Brady ahead of their Christmas Day primetime matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. 

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Because the two teams play each other next week in Tampa Bay, both teams will be in control of their own destiny. And if the Buccaneers look anything like they did against the Cincinnati Bengals last week – Tampa Bay blew a 17-point lead and committed turnovers on four consecutive drives – they won’t have the easiest time in Arizona, even if Trace McSorley is the opposing starting quarterback. 

Interim coach Steve Wilks deserves the full-time job. In October, Tepper fired Matt Rhule after the Panthers’ 1-4 start. Since then, they’ve gone 5-5, despite three different starting quarterbacks and the pre-deadline trade of Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers. 

Wilks is clearly getting more out of this team than Rhule, who will collect paychecks from Tepper and the University of Nebraska for the next couple of years. 

The Panthers’ success is tied to their rushing attack. After McCaffrey’s departure, D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard have developed into a formidable 1-2 punch – that much was abundantly clear against the Lions. Foreman rushed 21 times for 165 yards and a touchdown, while Hubbard went for 125 yards on 12 carries (10.4 yards per carry). 

After the game, Wilks said the production starts up front. 

“Our guys did a great job with coming off the ball, getting to the second level, which was the key for us,” Wilks said. 

On Saturday, the Panthers had 240 yards on the ground by halftime, and 320 total. Wilks said the blocking scheme, executed ideally, has the linemen coming off double teams and advancing to a linebacker or defensive back.

Having backs who can make defenders miss is another key. Next Gen Stats tracked Carolina with 130 rushing yards over expected in the first half – the most by any team in a first half over the last five seasons.

Since Carolina relies heavily on the run, an early lead is a godsend for this team. When the Panthers fell behind against Pittsburgh last week, they could not climb back and the Steelers gave them a taste of their medicine with long possessions. 

“They bounced back and showed their true character in how they practiced this week,” Wilks said of his team, “and most importantly, today.”

In offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s offense, quarterback Sam Darnold is playing the best ball of his career. The former No. 3 overall pick by the New York Jets in 2019, he missed the first 11 weeks of the season with a high ankle sprain he suffered right before the start of the regular season. 

The Panthers stayed afloat between P.J. Walker and Baker Mayfield (waived after Darnold’s return and now on the Los Angeles Rams) long enough for Darnold to take command. In his four games behind center, the Panthers are 3-1. Darnold hasn’t been special, but he had his best game of the season against the Lions, going 15-for-22 for 250 yards and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing). 

He has a No. 1 receiver in D.J. Moore (five catches, 83 yards, one touchdown) to work with and has developed a connection with Terrace Marshall Jr. Receiver Laviska Shenault provides a creative option for the offense.

On defense, the Panthers are anchored by one of the NFL’s more underrated players on that side of the ball in edge rusher Brian Burns. The 2019 first-rounder was just named to his second straight Pro Bowl, and Burns entered this season with 36 sacks during his three years in the league and is already at a career-best 12.5 in 2022. 

Throw all of these ingredients together, and the Panthers may have one of the most improbable playoff stews the NFL has seen in some time. 

And on Sunday, while the Buccaneers battle it out against the downtrodden Cardinals, the Panthers will have their feet up by the fire, egg nog in hand, already looking forward to the first day of 2023. 

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.