CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera sat in the special teams meeting room Friday as coach Bruce DeHaven reviewed film from Thursday’s 33-14 victory at Dallas.
He listened outside the door of the defensive meeting room as coordinator Sean McDermott talked to his players. He met with offensive coordinator Mike Shula to get the gist of what he said to his players.
He liked what he heard from each.
“Our message is very clear," Rivera said before giving players the weekend off. “We’ve got a lot of things to improve on. We’ve got a ways to go.
“You can’t have penalties like we’ve had penalties. You can’t miss blocks like we’ve missed blocks. You can’t run the wrong route when you’re supposed to go somewhere else."
In other words, the Panthers (11-0) haven’t played the perfect game even though their record is perfect.
But they are arguably the most complete team in the NFL. That includes the New England Patriots (10-0), who play at Denver on Sunday night.
That’s why the Panthers have a chance to become the first team to run the table in the regular season since the 2007 Patriots, who didn’t lose until the Super Bowl.
The Panthers rank third in the NFL in scoring and are fourth in total defense. They rank first in takeaway-giveaway ratio at plus-16, a statistic most coaches will tell you is critical to success.
They rank fifth in rush offense and eighth in rush defense, also two key elements to success. The rush defense ranking should climb after holding Dallas to 31 yards.
The combined record of Carolina’s remaining opponents is 26-24. Only the struggling Atlanta Falcons have a winning record at 6-4.
Three of the remaining opponents (the Giants, Buccaneers and Saints) rank in the bottom third of the league in scoring defense.
The hottest team on the remaining schedule is Tampa Bay, which comes to Bank of America Stadium for the finale on Jan. 3. The Bucs have won two in a row going into Sunday’s game at Indianapolis and three of their last four.
Carolina beat Tampa Bay 37-23 earlier this year without Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who was out with a concussion.
That doesn’t mean 16-0 will be easy. History is scattered with teams that have lost after getting to at least 11-0. Here’s a quick look:
1984 Dolphins – 11-0 before losing to San Diego
1991 Redskins – 11-0 before losing to Dallas
1985 Bears – 12-0 before losing to Miami
1998 Broncos – 13-0 before losing to N.Y. Giants
2005 Colts – 13-0 before losing to San Diego
2009 Colts – 14-0 before losing N.Y. Jets
2009 Saints – 13-0 before losing to Dallas
2011 Packers – 13-0 before losing to Kansas City
According to ESPN’s Football Power Index the Panthers have the best chance of any NFL team to win out at 17.9 percent.
Newton’s Total Quarterback Ranking is 20 points higher – 72.6 compared to 53.1 before December -- during that span.
With the NFC South title and first-round playoff bye all but a lock, the Panthers won’t be under any pressure.
All this points to a strong finish.
The Panthers have strong leadership within the locker room to maintain that one-game-at-a-time mentality, which also should help.
“The way our team is playing, it’s going to take us not to play well on Sunday for a team to beat us,’’ defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said.
My prediction for the Panthers was 10-6 when the schedule was released. That dropped to 9-7 going into the season with the loss of star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a knee injury.
It was adjusted to 14-2 after a victory over Green Bay got Carolina to 8-0.
It’s time to adjust again. The Panthers won’t have the underdog card to play, as they did at Dallas. They should be favored to win every game.
So I’m adjusting to 16-0. Here’s how it could happen:
At New Orleans (4-6): Carolina beat the Saints 27-22 in Week 3 thanks to a spectacular interception in the end zone by Josh Norman with 1:09 remaining. The Saints were without Drew Brees, but the Panthers were without Kuechly and defensive end Charles Johnson. The Saints have lost two in a row and have allowed an average of 43.3 points in their last three games. The Panthers have exploited weak defenses all season. Prediction: Panthers 30, Saints 17
Atlanta (6-4): The Falcons are reeling, with four losses in their last five games. Their offense is averaging only 17.6 points during that span. Carolina cornerback Josh Norman has a recent history of shutting down Matt Ryan’s top weapon, wide receiver Julio Jones. Prediction: Panthers 24, Falcons 13
At New York Giants (5-5): The Panthers have outscored the NFC East by a combined 121-46 this season. The Giants have lost three of their last five games and rank 31st in total defense. Prediction: Panthers 28, Giants 13
At Atlanta (6-4): See earlier prediction.
Tampa Bay (5-5): It could come down to this. The Bucs are the most balanced team Carolina will face, ranked ninth offensively and 13th defensively. Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston isn’t playing like a rookie anymore. But this one is at Carolina, where the Panthers have won nine consecutive games. Rivera has no plan to rest his starters the way some coaches do when their team has a playoff spot secured. Prediction: Panthers 29, Bucs 17