Two divisions can stake a legitimate claim as the toughest division in the NFL.
The NFC West has the Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers, and Seattle Seahawks.
Meanwhile, the AFC North features the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
However, the third-best division is up for debate.
The AFC East has the Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, and New York Jets.
— Dusty🐬 (@dustydolphins) September 14, 2021
The NFC South has a solid argument as well.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are the defending champions, while the New Orleans Saints reached the playoffs last season.
Both teams won their opening week assignments against the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers, respectively.
Then there are the Carolina Panthers, who looked solid during their Week 1 victory over the Jets.
That game may be a low-scoring affair, but praise is due to the Panthers for being the better team.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 12, 2021
Sam Darnold looked comfortable running Joe Brady’s system and finished the game with 24 completions for 279 yards and a touchdown.
But Christian McCaffrey‘s return made the biggest impact in their season opener.
The All-Pro running played three games in 2020 due to ankle and shoulder injuries.
Despite those limitations, McCaffrey still collected 225 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
The blue hits different 🥶 pic.twitter.com/AASYUYM0Qx
— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) June 15, 2021
Ten months later, it’s like he never relinquished his role as a dual-threat running back.
McCaffrey got 98 rushing yards on 21 carries and another 89 yards on nine receptions.
His versatile play helped the Panthers to keep the chains moving and allowed Darnold to develop a rhythm.
That performance also makes him an early candidate for Comeback Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year.
Christian McCaffrey now has 7 games with 75 rushing yards and 75 receiving yards. That passes Walter Payton for the 3rd-most since the NFL-AFL Merger (1970). Only Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes has more such games during that span. pic.twitter.com/tYUPYtzjTS
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) September 12, 2021
The Defense Clawed Their Way
Hats off to the Panthers’ offensive line for allowing just one sack on Darnold.
Likewise, the offense averaged six yards per play which is roughly a first down every two plays.
But credit is due to the Carolina defense for dominating the Jets offensive line and collecting six sacks.
New Panther Haason Reddick led the way with 1.5 sacks and four total tackles.
Escaped one tackler.
— NFL (@NFL) September 12, 2021
The Panthers defensive unit limited the Jets to 207 pass and 45 run yards.
Tevin Coleman had the most rushing yards among Jets players with 24.
Wilson did throw for two touchdowns but had a low completion percentage of 54 percent.
The Jets also converted just four of 13 tries on third down.
Sam Darnold to Robby Anderson. 57 yards 🚀
The ex-Jets burn their former team 😤
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 12, 2021
The Panthers will face a stiff challenge against division rival Saints in Week 2.
Reddick, Burns, Fox, Brown, and the rest of Carolina’s defense must neutralize Jameis Winston after throwing five touchdown passes against the Packers.
As for the offense, McCaffrey will continue to be their focal point because he will be a handful for the Saints.
It’s time to consider the Panthers as legitimate contenders if they defeat the Saints at their home field.