The Carolina Panthers have sports books juggling their Super Bowl odds after becoming the first National Football League team in 20 years to run off eight straight victories following a 1-3 start.
The Panthers two days before the start of the season had 66-1 odds of winning the Super Bowl, according to online sports book Bovada.lv, putting them 25th among the league’s 32 teams.
Carolina is now listed at 10-1 -- tied for fifth in the NFL -- as it takes a 9-3 record into its nationally televised Sunday night game at the New Orleans Saints that determines which team takes sole possession of first place in the National Football Conference’s South Division.
“The Panthers are legit contenders,” Bovada.lv sports book manager Kevin Bradley said. “They have been the biggest mover in terms of our odds.”
The Dec. 8 game at the New Orleans SuperDome is the first of two meetings in a three-week span between the rivals that will help determine the division winner and which team probably will earn a bye during the first round of the playoffs.
The Panthers’ turnaround is attributable in large part to the maturation of quarterback Cam Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn University who had a 13-19 record over his first two NFL seasons, said ESPN analyst Tom Waddle.
“They’re not asking Cam to do it all by himself,” said Waddle, who credits Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula for a more balanced attack. “I don’t think he’s making the crucial mistakes that he made early in his career. People forget, he’s 24 years old. He’s been in the league for three years, but he’s only 24 years old.”
Newton has completed a career-high 62 percent of his passes with a combined 14 interceptions and fumbles after committing 44 turnovers his first two years.
“We’re seeing the progress,” said Waddle, 46, a wide receiver for the Chicago Bears from 1989 to 1994. “Maybe the biggest issue is when he gets down, he doesn’t stay down or get overly discouraged. I see a much more patient quarterback, a more confident quarterback, a much more mature quarterback and truly the leader of this team right now.”
Newton is the first player in NFL history with at least 50 touchdown passes and 25 rushing scores over his first three seasons. He’s also won his past two games against the Saints, a credit to the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton’s size, strength and athleticism, New Orleans coach Sean Payton said.
“You have seen him grow with confidence and you have seen the players around him playing with that same confidence,” Payton said. “There are a lot of things that he brings to the table that make it very difficult to defend.”
Newton has been backed by a defense that’s allowed an NFL-low 13.1 points a game this season and spearheaded wins over the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers during their current run. Even so, the Panthers are underdogs heading into New Orleans, where the Saints are 6-0 this season and Drew Brees has starred in primetime games. When playing at home at night over the past four years, Brees has a 10-0 record with 33 touchdown passes and four interceptions.
The Saints are 3-point favorites against Carolina, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook, which has lowered the Panthers’ odds of winning the Super Bowl to 10-1 from 40-1 entering the season. SuperBook assistant manager Jeff Sherman said 24 of the 123 futures bets the LVH has taken on the Panthers to win the Super Bowl were made before the season.
The Seattle Seahawks (11-1) and Denver Broncos (10-2) have the best odds of winning the Super Bowl, both at 2-1, and have each drawn more than 600 futures bets at the LVH, Sherman said. The Patriots (9-3) are 6-1, followed by the Saints at 8-1 and then the 49ers (8-4) and Panthers.
Carolina is seeking to become the fifth team in NFL history to win nine consecutive games after starting a season 1-3 or worse. The last was the 1993 Houston Oilers, which won 11 games in a row after losing four of their first five games.
“Even though we’re having a great season, it could be better,” Newton said after practice this week. “It’s not going to be given to us. We’re going into a hostile environment and we know those guys are going to be playing for a lot. There’s a lot at stake for both teams.”