It had been so long between wins for the Carolina Panthers’ fans that many of the ones I’ve run into this week seem to need practice being happy.
What about you? Did you let yourself get exultant about one win? Did you let its tentacles reach beyond last Monday? Or did you worry so much about how anemic the Panthers’ passing offense is that you didn’t really enjoy it?
This Sunday will provide an achievable test for the Panthers (1-2), when they host Arizona (1-2) at 4:05 p.m. on Fox Sports. It’s the “Keep Pounding” game for the 2022 season, and as such, the late Panthers linebacker Sam Mills and his Hall of Fame legacy will be celebrated in video tributes, helmet stickers and with his Mills’ widow, Melanie Mills, banging the “Keep Pounding” drum just before kickoff.
A win would give the Panthers, and their fans, some needed practice on this happiness thing. Because while one win can be dismissed as something of a fluke — after all, the Panthers were never going to go 0-17 — two victories in a row can’t be tossed away so easily. Reaching .500 after the first month of the season would be no small feat for the Panthers, who only last week broke a nine-game losing streak that had stretched over 10 months of real time.
That the opponent is Arizona should provide some solace. No foe has been friendlier to the Panthers than the Cardinals over the past eight years. Although the Panthers have suffered through four losing seasons in a row, one thing has remained the same: They’ve always seem to be able to beat the Cardinals.
Carolina, in fact, is riding a six-game winning streak against Arizona, and all of those victories have come by a margin of at least 10 points. Two of those were in the playoffs (after the 2014 and 2015 seasons), but most have come when the Panthers weren’t very good at all.
Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, only 11-25 in his tenure with Carolina, is nevertheless 2-0 against Arizona. Even Ron Rivera, just a couple of months from getting fired in 2019, beat the Cardinals one final time in a game where Kyle Allen, of all people, threw four TD passes.
Cam Newton’s “I’m ba-a-a-ck!” game came against Arizona last year in what turned out to the Carolina’s last win of the season — although in that one the Cardinals didn’t have star quarterback Kyler Murray and had to start backup Colt McCoy. They’ll have Murray this time.
“I think he’s one of the rare, rare, rare athletic players of my life,” said Rhule, who also coached against Murray in college. “I saw him do things on the college football field that made me just want to walk off the field.”
The Cardinals, though, have been struggling, even with Murray in the lineup. Oddly, Carolina and Arizona have each scored exactly 62 points through three games — but Carolina has allowed only 59 and the Cardinals have given up 87. Arizona’s risky defensive scheme can be exploited, if the Panthers can cure Baker Mayfield’s completion percentage woes. It would help a lot if DJ Moore and Robbie Anderson would aid their quarterback by getting more separation than they did in what was a horrible game statistically for Carolina’s two starting receivers last week against New Orleans.
Mayfield and the Panthers’ offense have also proven susceptible to the blitz, and so Arizona will undoubtedly come after him again, because that’s the book on how to play the Panthers these days.
It would also help if Christian McCaffrey got more involved in the passing game, but it’s not a sure thing that McCaffrey will play. No. 22 has been nursing a quad injury all week and is listed as questionable for Sunday, although the fact that he practiced Friday was a good sign.
Still, it’s Arizona, a team that the Panthers for whatever reason just seem to be able to beat.
And if they can do so again, promise me this, Panther fans: You’ll try to be a little happier about this win than the one a week before.