- Associated Press - Monday, December 21, 2015

Las Vegas doesn’t much believe in the Carolina Panthers.

Yes, they are 14-0. Yes, the NFC road to the Super Bowl almost certainly will go through Charlotte.

And yes, they might have the league’s MVP and top offensive player, Cam Newton, and its best defender, Josh Norman. Maybe the Coach of the Year in Ron Rivera, too.

Yet there are more than creeping doubts about this team, and Sunday’s 38-35 win at the Giants enforced them.

Rivera sure noticed.

“Very disappointed in ourselves,” Rivera said after the Panthers blew a 35-7 third-quarter lead and needed a clutch drive engineered by Newton to Graham Gano’s winning field goal as time expired. “We had an opportunity to close a team out and we didn’t do it. Why? Because we didn’t keep our focus and maintain our composure out there.”

Give the Panthers full credit for their resilience, of course. It’s something they have displayed with remarkable regularity in this so-far special season, with seven wins by eight points or less.

Still, when they turn a romp in the Meadowlands into a near-historic collapse, it raises questions.

Just how special are the Panthers?

If you ask the oddsmakers, there are a handful of teams they expect to win the NFL title ahead of Carolina - including two potential wild cards, Seattle and Pittsburgh. So the Panthers will carry the no-respect card around until they stop playing - which they hope is Feb. 8, one day after Super Bowl 50.

There’s also the injury issue. Top running back Jonathan Stewart (foot) sat out against New York, and Newton, despite his size, speed, strength and know-how, gets banged around way too much. The Panthers lost key cornerback Bene Benwikere for the season, too.

Carolina’s defense has been inconsistent recently, too. But that’s not a fair knock because the same can be said for the defensive units on a bunch of other contenders. And they don’t have Norman, Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short, Thomas Davis and NFC interceptions leader Kurt Coleman.

Then consider that the receiving corps is unproven, except for Greg Olsen, who might not get the plaudits that tight ends such as Rob Gronkowski and Jason Witten attract, but deserves similar treatment.

Ted Ginn Jr. still drops passes and runs some unorthodox routes, but he also has made more big plays this year than his previous eight seasons combined. Jerricho Cotchery is a solid slot receiver and good locker room presence, but opponents don’t fear him, nor Corey Brown nor Devin Funchess.

Special teams are so-so, and Newton is the best runner with Stewart sidelined.

Lastly, the schedule has played into Carolina’s hands. Facing the mediocre (at best) NFC East and AFC South certainly has contributed to 14 straight wins. The Panthers’ own division isn’t much, either.

Still, the Panthers are two games better than anyone else, with impressive wins over Green Bay and Seattle, opponents they might face in January. When pushed to the limit, they have responded - never more so than against the Giants.

Even if, as Newton noted, it never should have gone down that way.

“It shouldn’t have been a thriller, I can tell you that,” Newton said after the game. “We just had to find ways. It’s great for us to be in a game like this - it’s kind of like our first dose of mini-games of what playoff football is going to be about. (But) we have to create that killer instinct.

“We did a terrible job with finishing this game out, and we’ve just got to create better habits here moving forward.”


AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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