Why the Carolina Panthers are Super Bowl contenders

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are one of six undefeated teams in the NFL. How good are the Panthers? Here’s a closer look:

Super Bowl contender or pretender: This may be a stretch, but I’ll say contender. Here’s why. The defense ranks 10th in the NFL, and that is without two-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly since the first half of the Sept. 13 opener. Coach Ron Rivera said Monday he is "pretty optimistic" Kuechly will be cleared to return from the concussion protocol before the Panthers' next game, Oct. 18 at Seattle. This unit no doubt will be better when Kuechly returns. Defense wins titles. Meanwhile, quarterback Cam Newton is playing at arguably his highest level. He is making smart decisions. He is getting by with a group of no-name wide receivers, thanks in part to the strong play of his offensive line and the great security blanket he has in Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. Newton isn’t Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, but his ability to keep the chains moving with his arm and legs gives this offense a chance.

Reason to be excited: As mentioned above, the defense has played well without its quarterback. The players who have stepped up while Kuechly has been out have gotten better. Josh Norman has emerged as one of the elite cornerbacks in the league. He was the NFC’s defensive player of the month in September, and he started October off with a pair of interceptions -- one returned for a touchdown. He can shut down the opponent’s top receiver; he did it twice last season against Atlanta’s Julio Jones. The Falcons also are 4-0 and will be a factor for the Panthers in the NFC South. But remember, Rivera’s first four teams have played their best down the stretch. Carolina’s record over the last six games since 2011 is a combined 18-6.

Reason to be concerned: The Panthers finally will face proven quarterbacks in Seattle’s Russell Wilson, Philadelphia’s Sam Bradford, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Green Bay’s Rodgers. For as well as the defense has played, it hasn’t been tested by a proven signal-caller. This goes hand in hand with the lack of pressure by the front four. The loss of defensive end Charles Johnson will take its toll unless 33-year-old Jared Allen returns to his form of two years ago. There still are no consistent and proven pass-rushers at the other end. This defense is predicated on getting pressure on the quarterback. Despite the coaching staff saying the lack of a pass rush isn’t a concern, it has to be.

What the schedule tells us: Unfavorable. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Panthers will be favored in only three of their remaining 12 games. On paper, the schedule gets tougher after this week’s bye, with a trip to Seattle and consecutive home games against Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay. But the Eagles and Colts are struggling, and both games are in Charlotte. The Cowboys aren’t guaranteed to have starting quarterback Tony Romo back for a Thanksgiving Day game against the Panthers, one of the tougher contests down the stretch. In all likelihood, Carolina’s playoff fate will come down to how it does in games on Dec. 13 and 27 against NFC South rival Atlanta; the Panthers have won four of the last five meetings.