Defense finally No. 1, but challenges await

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For months, almost every time a member of the Carolina Panthers' defense has been complimented, the response has been how they won't be satisfied until the unit is ranked No. 1.

They might have to come up with a new answer.

Hello No. 1.

The Panthers (9-3) moved into the top position in average yards allowed -- the measuring stick the NFL uses to rank the No. 1 defense -- after Sunday's 27-6 victory against Tampa Bay.

It is the first time they have held that distinction since Weeks 4 and 5 in 2002, when that unit finished the season No. 2 overall according to Elias.

OK, so they held that spot for 24 hours three weeks ago after previous No. 1 Kansas City gave up 427 yards in a Sunday night 27-17 loss to the Denver Broncos. But the Panthers gave it up after surrendering 390 yards in a 24-20 Monday night victory against New England.

This time it should stick. The Panthers have given up 3,478 yards, an average of 289.8 per game. Their position won't change unless the Seattle Seahawks, ranked second at 293.3 yards per game, hold a New Orleans team averaging 415 yards to less than 252 on Monday night.

Carolina players were given Monday off after running their league-best winning streak to a franchise-record eight straight, so they weren't around to talk about the ranking.

But you can imagine their answer would be much like that of head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.

Basically, it's nice, but let's see where we are after the season.

You can't blame them, particularly with two of the next four games against the Saints (9-2).

"I feel good about it," McDermott said of the ranking. "I'm not going to lie about it. At the same time, you've got Drew Brees and the Saints offense staring you right in the face.

"Another big challenge for us."

The Panthers, 9-3 heading into a battle for the NFC South lead, have handled big challenges well so far this season. They held the San Francisco 49ers to 151 total yards and nine points on the road. They held a New England team averaging 27 points a game to 20 in a prime time game. They have shut out four of their past five opponents in the second half.

But in terms of complete offenses, New Orleans will be the toughest challenge. The Saints entered Monday night's game averaging 27.7 points and -- as noted above -- 415 yards a game.

Still, getting to No. 1 is a nice acknowledgment for how well the Panthers have played defensively. That they rank first in points allowed (13.08) might be more significant. You don't lose many games when teams score fewer than two touchdowns.

"It does mean they're playing very well," Rivera said. "They're doing a lot of good things, and they deserve some credit."

He then reverted to his standard "figures lie and liars figure, cause it's a stat" routine.

"The only one that really does matter is wins and losses," Rivera added. "But I'm happy for the guys, because the players play hard. That's one of their goals, to be the No. 1 defense and be a playoff caliber defense."

The Panthers have been a playoff-caliber defense since a Week 1 12-7 loss to Seattle. Every time someone asks how good this team is, my first response is the defense is built well enough to win a Super Bowl.

But again, the biggest challenges are ahead. That's why Rivera and McDermott temper their enthusiasm about the ranking.

"They have done a great job, deservedly so, to get some credit, to be acknowledged for what they've accomplished so far," Rivera said. "But again, we still have four more left to play."

And the ultimate goal is to play three or four more after that.