CHARLOTTE — It turns out reports of the Panthers’ demise may have been a bit premature. After close losses in the opening two weeks of the season, Carolina beat NFC South rival New Orleans on Sunday to earn its first win of the season. The win put the Panthers in a three-way tie, just one game behind suddenly vulnerable first-place Tampa Bay, which lost to Green Bay on Sunday.
The Panthers have a plus-three point differential this season, which is tied for fourth best in the NFC. And after posting their first home win in more than a year and snapping the league’s longest overall losing streak, the Panthers are suddenly right in the mix of things.
There are still concerns about an offense that has yet to click under new quarterback Baker Mayfield, although the team seemed to find another key weapon in receiver Laviska Shenault. Acquired in a trade with Jacksonville in late August, Shenault had a huge game in his Panthers debut, highlighted by a 67-yard touchdown reception to break the game open after New Orleans scored to move to within one score. It was Carolina’s third 50-plus yard play this season, which is the most in the NFL.
“Laviska is kind of a competitive guy and so that’s why we traded for him,” coach Matt Rhule said. “He has come far enough along that we feel like we have a good feel for him. It was good. He had a good kickoff return. We will just continue to up his workload now that we can see what he can truly do.”
“I mean he is a horse. Guy can do everything and brings a different energy to the offense too,” running back Christian McCaffrey added.
He also takes pressure off the All-Pro running back, who has been the team’s top offensive weapon for much of his career. Now healthy for the first time in more than a year, McCaffrey turned in his second straight 100-yard rushing outing. Still, the Panthers’ passing game needs to find its footing. Outside of the bomb to Shenault, Mayfield managed just 103 yards on 11-of-24 passing. That came on the heels of a 14-of-29, 145-yard day against the Giants. Mayfield isn’t making the big mistakes — he has thrown just one interception in three games — but the team will need more than a game manager at quarterback.
“There is a lot of work to be done offensively to get this thing to the level that we want,” Rhule said.
The offense struggled with third-down conversions.
“I think we were 1 of 6 or 1 of 7 at halftime,” Rhule said. “We finished 4 of 14, plus a fourth down conversion we didn’t get. Those are probably what is holding us back.”
Carolina’s top two receiving options — DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson — each managed just one catch in the game.
“To win a football game in the NFC South and have Robbie and DJ each have one catch, I wouldn’t have thought that would happen,” Rhule said.
Mayfield didn’t take much solace in the win-by-any-means attitude, however.
“I am going to look back at the tape and not be real happy with how I played,” he said.
The defense also helped take the pressure off the struggling offense. Frankie Luvu made another big play, stripping the ball and setting up a Marquis Haynes fumble return for a touchdown to open the scoring. The defense added two interceptions later in the game.
Rhule credited the defense’s big plays with being loose.
“We were just going to let it rip and trust the guys to make plays,” he said. “I think the defense had heard all week, ‘Hey, you’re not getting takeaways, you’re not getting takeaways.’ As a coach, I’m pushing the takeaways, but I’m also pushing, ‘Hey, it’s also going to come.’”
Now, the team needs to build on the win with games against the meat of its schedule coming up. The Panthers’ next four opponents are all playoff contenders in Arizona, San Francisco and the last two Super Bowl champions in the L.A. Rams and Tampa Bay Bucs.
“This is a new season,” Mayfield said. “We have a ton of new guys. For me at least, obviously being here for the first time. It’s just one game at a time, one play at a time.”
It worked to get the team its elusive first win.
“That’s washed,” defensive tackle Derrick Brown said of the losing streak. “If you’re worried about last year you won’t be able to do anything this year. We got off to a slow start and we knew we had to come in and work.”