Are the Carolina Panthers Legitimate Super Bowl Contenders?

After starting the season 4-0, the Carolina Panthers are red hot. Can they continue their winning ways as we move into the heart of the season?

Of the six teams that remain undefeated after the first four weeks of the 2015 season -- Atlanta, Carolina, Cincinnati, Denver, Green Bay, and New England -- the Carolina Panthers may be the biggest surprise.

Playing in one of the weakest divisions in football certainly helps, but considering the adversity this team has faced both before and during the season -- Kelvin Benjamin tearing his ACL and the loss of Luke Kuechly in Week 1 -- it’s quite remarkable that they have played as well as they have.

Now a quarter of the way through the season, it’s time to start taking inventory of what we’ve seen thus far and processing how things may go from this point forward.

The Panthers will most likely not go 16-0, but can they continue to play well and stay near the top of the NFC South? Can they make a legitimate push for the Super Bowl? What has gone right so far and what can be improved upon?

What's Gone Right

On offense thus far, the story has started and finished with the play of Cam Newton

While his 55.8% completion percentage is below his career average (59.2%) and his efficiency has been middling -- ranking 14th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per attempt among 29 quarterbacks with 100 or more attempts -- he has done a wonderful job of taking care of the football. Newton has thrown 7 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions, and has also been utilizing his legs much more, averaging nearly 11 carries per game with 2 rushing touchdowns so far.

Greg Olsen has stepped into the role of primary pass-catcher following the loss of Benjamin during the pre-season. Through 4 games Olsen has seen 28.1 percent of the team’s targets, leads the team in catches and receiving yardage, and ranks 4th in Reception NEP among all tight ends.

Our high expectations for the Carolina defense before the season have been partially met, with the pass defense led by Josh Norman leading the charge. The Panthers have the second-ranked pass defense adjusted for strength of schedule according to our metrics, while facing the third most pass attempts per game (45).

As we will discuss shortly, the rush defense has been another story. 

What Needs To Improve

For as good as the pass defense has been, the Panthers’ run defense has been susceptible. 

The loss of Kuechly in the middle of the defense is a big reason why Carolina currently ranks 27th against the run according to our metrics when adjusted for strength of schedule. For the Panthers to make a serious playoff run, this is an area that needs to improve.

On the offensive side of the ball, rushing has also been a concern. Averaging just 55 yards rushing per game without a single touchdown, Jonathan Stewart has been extremely disappointing for those who were hoping for a breakout season for fantasy football purposes.

He’s been relatively efficient according to our metrics, however, ranking 15th in Rushing NEP per carry among 42 running backs with 30 or more carries. Things could turn around. 

While Newton’s rushing ability is great, solid contributions from Stewart would go a long way towards continued success.

Contender or Pretender?

Heading into Week 5, there are reasons to be concerned about the Panthers avoiding a late-season fade.

The lack of a legitimate second threat in the passing game is worrisome and, should anything happen to Olsen, things could get ugly. Ted Ginn Jr. owns a Reception NEP per target of 0.86 through four weeks on 25 targets. That ranks him 13th among 54 receivers with at least 20 targets. However, he's maintained a Reception NEP per target better than 0.64 -- roughly a league-average mark -- in just one season (0.79 in 2013).

The lack of a solid run game is also concerning. And a run defense that has been woefully inefficient must improve.

But with Josh Norman morphing into the kind of cornerback that erases an entire side of the field and with Kuechly "close" to returning from his concussion, the run defense should improve. The growth of a young offensive line has also been a crucial development so far.

According to our algorithms, Carolina currently has an 83.0% chance of making the playoffs, with a 43.1% chance of winning their division. Hanging with the likes of Green Bay and Arizona come playoff time looks like a daunting task, but with a 6.3% chance of raising the Lombardi trophy -- 7th best odds in the entire league -- Carolina is a legitimate dark horse candidate to make a deep playoff run.