Panthers aren't playoff contenders

Cam Newton and the Panthers are on an eight-game winning streak. But how long will it last? Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

This has been a season of ascension for the Carolina Panthers. After three straight losing campaigns and a playoff drought extending back to 2008, the Panthers are now the owners of the longest win streak in the NFL (eight games) and have a 98.4 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders. They are headed into a Week 14 matchup with the New Orleans Saints to determine first place in the NFC South.

But as great as this streak has been for the Panthers, it is something of a mirage. A closer look at the metrics and game tape indicates that Carolina has a slew of weaknesses that make this team a potential playoff paper tiger.

Anemic downfield passing game

Prior to this season, Cam Newton could be viewed as a modern-day Brett Favre, a quarterback who seemed to go all out for the reward of downfield passes while throwing caution to the wind. This led to some prolific vertical totals such as when he ranked tied for third in vertical attempts in 2011, but it also led to a 4.2 percent bad decision rate (BDR) that ranked 31st in the league in that same campaign. BDR is a gauge of how often a QB makes a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the opposing team, and that level is simply too high for most teams to overcome.

Since Newton's BDR was still an issue in 2012 (3.1 percent, ranked tied for 35th), new offensive coordinator Mike Shula seemed to make correcting this part of Newton's game a top priority.

At one level this approach has worked like a champ, as Newton's 2.1 percent BDR is easily the lowest of his career, but that improvement has come at a significant cost in vertical productivity.