Luke Kuechly

In the ultimate narcissistic move, Mercury Morris pops the cork on a bottle of champagne and toasts his 1972 Miami Dolphins teammates every year after the last National Football League team without a loss falls. It’s classless and ridiculous.

Last week, Morris was asked about the Carolina Panthers and their 12-0 record. He was unimpressed.

“I have to take my hat off to them. It’s not easy to get 12 wins,” Morris told Max Laughton of Fox Sports. “The Broncos did it, Colts and the Saints a few years back. Let (the Panthers) get past that jinx of the 13th game and then come ask me again if I think they will have a perfect season.”

Morris isn’t the only football man who doesn’t believe in the Panthers. Every week, any number of experts predict it’s the end of the run for the Panthers. Even now, those same experts are predicting that if the Panthers do happen to finish the regular season 16-0, they will inevitably fall in the playoffs. After a 38-0 pasting of NFC South rival Atlanta, it’s time to start taking the Panthers seriously.

Yes. You read that right. It’s time the Carolina Panthers get the respect they deserve with their performance on the field.

Winning 13 games in the NFL is not easy. Ask the Cleveland Browns, who have never in franchise history won 13 games in any single season. Since their return to the league in 1999, they’ve won as many as 10 games just once (2007) and have finished above .500 just twice. Oakland has won as many as eight games just twice since 2003 and no more than five in any other season in that span. The Panthers have not only won 13, but 13 straight. They average 31.6 points per game. They allow just 18.7. Just two of Carolina’s 13 wins have been decided by a field goal or less.

Take it a step further. Quarterback Cam Newton has his unit ranked 10th in the league in total offense. He leads the league’s best rushing offense. Luke Kuechly’s unit is ranked third in total defense. A team that scores 31 points per game, outscores opponents by an average nearly 13 points per game and ranks as one of the NFL’s best in both offense and defense while holding the league’s best record by two games is an afterthought. Many experts point to the Panthers’ schedule, which boasts just two teams currently sporting winning records. On the surface, that might be a legitimate argument.

Look deeper. Atlanta, Dallas, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia and the New York Giants have all played well below expectations entering the season. Each of them was supposed to compete for the playoffs entering the season. Of those teams, only New Orleans and Dallas are as many as three games below .500 and the Giants are 5-7 heading into a clash with Miami tonight. That schedule isn’t so bad. Another common argument is that Newton is less than average as a passing quarterback and he lacks threats in the passing game. Again, on first look, that might hold water. Look closer, however.

Carolina ranks 25th in passing 2,912 yards. That number is a bit misleading, though, as Newton is averaging 7.7 yards per attempt, which stands tied for sixth in the league. The Panthers’ 28 passing touchdowns are fifth in the NFL and just five behind New England, which leads the league with 33.

Tight end Greg Olsen has 65 receptions for 969 yards and six touchdowns. He averages 14.9 yards per reception. Ted Ginn has 37 catches for 645 yards and eight scores while averaging 17.4 yards per catch. For a team that lost its best receiver threat when Kelvin Benjamin went down with an injury in the preseason, that’s not all that bad.

With just the stretch run remaining before the playoffs, the Panthers have already defeated the three NFC favorites to reach the Super Bowl in Green Bay, Dallas and Seattle. How does that not legitimize their résumé? It’s quite possible the Panthers lose a game or two between now and the end of the regular season, but I’d say they’re right at the top the conversation to reach Super Bowl 50.