Carolina Panthers, now in NFC driver's seat, demand respect

CHARLOTTE -- The face of the franchise was relaxed at his locker Sunday, taking his sweet time as usual before draping himself in those freshest of threads. Cam Newton was in a good mood, often the case lately, as the Carolina Panthers rolled to 8-0 start in the 2015 campaign.

"You saw that?" asked Newton, flashing his smile after I joked about him taking a large Packers banner from a few visiting fans who'd hung it over the wall between the front row and the field during pregame warmups. "I didn't think anybody saw that."

In his defense, Newton did move fast. He first told a trainer, "Somebody better go take down that banner before I do it instead." A few minutes later, he was already folding it up, tucking it under his arm and jogging it into the home locker room.

Like everything with Newton, the move probably will draw the same two reactions, depending on your previous opinion of him: It was humorous. Or it was childish.

Yet in the wake of a 37-29 win against the NFC's figurative golden child, maybe it is time we instead look at Newton's actions as something else: a necessary statement.

"It was a Green Bay banner in Bank of America Stadium," Newton said. "It just doesn't match. It's just a respect thing. It's my duty to protect this house. We played in Green Bay last year, and I didn't see any 'This is Panther Country' signs in their stadium."

Look, the banner situation isn't a big deal in itself. But it is symbolic to a broader point about this team: The Panthers literally get less respect, relative to their accomplishments, than any team in the NFL.

Sure, we'll toss them in a discussion about undefeated teams, only to note they're the most likely to fall first. Yes, we'll mention that Josh Norman is playing really well, only to stop short of adamantly noting he's playing better than any cornerback in the NFL. And absolutely, we'll even tell you it's a nice story, before wondering when it will end.

Maybe that's merely life as a small-market team with a limited level of historical significance. But what the Panthers did to the Packers in Sunday's first half wasn't just worthy of our "aw, shucks" compliments. It was real-deal, dominating football against the one team with the best chance of challenging them for home-field advantage in the playoffs.

If you're a Carolina fan, you can already hear the outside excuses about catching the Packers during a tough stretch, even though those same critics probably woke up Sunday morning saying, "Yeah, but the Panthers will finally show their true colors against their first real opponent."

How's this for true colors: 285 total yards and 27 points in the first half while holding Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to 133 of their own? Oh, but the Packers are still figuring out how to succeed on offense without Jordy Nelson, right? Perhaps then, we should also remember how many left the Panthers for dead in the wake of Kelvin Benjamin's season-ending knee injury during training camp.

Look, this isn't a knock on the Packers. Quite the opposite. Any team led by Rodgers, even one possessing a defense with severe issues, has a shot -- which we witnessed during Green Bay's impressive comeback that included two touchdowns inside the final eight minutes.

The Panthers are also so incredibly far from perfect, no doubt. Everyone in the locker room will admit as much. It's the very reason safety Roman Harper, for instance, even faces questions from his wife about the legitimacy of the Panthers' 8-0 start.

"People are going to question it," Harper said. "I even get the questions at home. People want to say, 'Oh, we let this team come back or this team took us to overtime.' Nobody in here cares. It's always better to correct mistakes after a win."

Harper might be the best player in the locker room to believe when it comes to the Panthers' prospects, since he was a Pro Bowl player on the Saints' Super Bowl winning team in 2009.

"At the most opportune times, somebody always stepped up to make a big play," Harper said about that Saints team. "And I think we've done a great job of that on offense and defense. We've got some ballplayers, some really good guys who are going to make those plays at the right time."

That player on Sunday was Thomas Davis, who came up with a key interception to thwart the Packers' final push to close an eight-point margin on a fourth-down play from the Panthers' 4-yard line. And next week, it'll likely be somebody else.

No matter what your level of respect for the Panthers is at this point, there is nonetheless a more objective reason why their 8-0 start could indeed help their chances at a postseason run. They now hold a two-game edge over everyone for home-field advantage in the NFC -- and they have a reasonable slate of games ahead. In the next three weeks, Carolina plays the Titans, Redskins and Cowboys -- three teams with less combined wins than the Panthers currently have. That means, if they can keep rolling, an 11-0 start is a perfectly reasonable expectation.

Then again, this is the NFL. The Titans beat the Saints on Sunday, and the Colts beat the Broncos. Nothing is given, right? Nobody should treat any game as if it's an easy win, right? Exactly.

And that's why it is time to respect the Panthers' accomplishments thus far in 2015. This is a team that lost its No. 1 wide receiver before the season even started -- and continues to win games despite the obstacles that each week presents.

So yes, Cam, go take that Packers banner down in your house. But just be warned next time you think nobody is watching: You have our attention. And this time, we'd be wise to not look away.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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