We are now at the midpoint, more or less, of the NFL's postseason, which means we are about halfway through the most heavily analyzed portion of the season of the most heavily analyzed sport in America's history. Countless people, from AM radio minnows in Binghamton to ex-players in Bristol, have their loud jobs to do before Sunday's conference championship games, and they will do them. They'll be getting up early to weigh strengths and weaknesses, pore over patterns, and make their picks.
These folks are surely delighted that, after building a 31-0 lead in the first half of their divisional round game in Charlotte, the Carolina Panthers let the Seattle Seahawks charge back to make it 31-24 in the closing moments. Such a turn made room for their preferred brand of evaluation, which amounts to picking a slogan and repeating it with various different types of emphasis as the situation demands. Super Bowl teams play 60 minutes, and all that.
If, by the midpoint of the fourth quarter, it was easy to forget just how good the Panthers looked at the game's beginning, it will be all but impossible to remember that after a few more days of furious re-framing. That torrid start will be presented as the work of a team with a champion's skill but without its temperament. The four first-half touchdowns will start to seem almost gluttonous. The opening half-hour will be scrutinized instead of celebrated.
Let's celebrate it here, then, because for a while Carolina played a sort of football that was both nearly perfect and totally distinctive. They weren't blessed by a series of escalating anomalies; they simply played half a football game as the fullest versions of themselves. And the fullest version of the Carolina Panthers is a sight to behold, a thing of natural awe. It is a stone rolling downhill, if that hill started at roughly Everest's elevation and ended at Marshawn Lynch's ribcage.
Most of the Panthers, even those that play different positions or on different sides of the ball or whose weights differ by 100 pounds, seem to move similarly. I don't mean that they are strategically in sync or that they fill their lanes and work in practiced tandem, though they are and do. I mean that their bodily tics, their un-strategic idiosyncrasies of motion, seem to match up.
The Panthers are not the fastest bunch, but they share a quickness that is hard to distinguish from awareness; it's as if they are able to revise the force and direction of their movements at shorter intervals than other players. They are strong but not pulverizingly so, less inclined to deliver the helmet-chipping hit than one that simply snuffs its target's advance. They have the power certain bouncers at certain hours seem to have, an ability just to move people where they please.
This ability figured in the first play from scrimmage in Sunday's game, when Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert, a human with the proportions and bruising potential of a medicine ball, shoved back a Seahawks linebacker and let tailback Jonathan Stewart scamper over 59 yards of soggy, divoted grass. It figured in the fourth play from scrimmage, when the Carolina offensive line wedged open the Seattle front and Stewart rolled over Earl Thomas for a touchdown. It figured in the Seahawks' first offensive snap, when Star Lotulelei pushed his way into the backfield and brought Lynch to a standstill, and in their second, when Kawann Short got through and pressured Russell Wilson into floating a desperation pass into the middle of the field. Linebacker Luke Kuechly caught it and returned it to the end zone, and it was all of a sudden 14-0.
Their quarterback and probable league MVP was not exempt. The rest of the signal-callers remaining in the playoffs are separated from their teams by hierarchy or type—the Denver Broncos, for instance, have a roster full of in-their-prime athletes, with Peyton Manning duct-taped to it—but Cam Newton seems like nothing so much as a distillation of the Panther aesthetic. Facing a third-and-2 midway through the second quarter, with the score already 24-0, Newton took a shotgun snap, surveyed his blocks, and then just sort of leaned his way to a first down. Four plays later, on third-and-14, he fired a straight-line strike to double-covered tight end Greg Olsen for a touchdown. The pass looked about as tough as a thrown football can look, as if, had a Seattle defender managed to get a hand on it, the pass would have merely muscled through his palm and kept on its path.
The uniqueness of the Panthers comes from the coherence of their style, the way that every play seems like both a strategic gambit and a defense of an ideology. At its worst, this trait makes things like the Seattle's near-comeback possible, as Carolina's devotion to running the ball led to the three-and-outs that let the Seahawks back in it. At its best, though, it can put a game so far out of reach that any comeback attempt is fated to fall short. The next few days, during this cluckiest time of the football-talking year, will doubtless be dedicated to debating whether the Panthers should be more happy about their ability to build Sunday's lead or worried about their inability to sustain it. The next couple weeks will settle the question.
But that divisional game, uneven as it was, already affirmed what a league-best 15-1 regular season record suggested. Carolina is capable of a register of football nobody else in the present NFL has access to. The rest of the teams remaining in the playoffs excel at the game's cutting-edge components; they dazzle with formations or rush passers in flurries of spins and feints or disguise themselves in complex coverages. The Panthers, at their most effective, don't trick anyone. They just go where they want.