There is no such thing as normal anymore in New England: Everything is peculiar and beautifully twisted, and quarterbacks catch passes, and obscure backups are thrust into key roles and a team that was once a profane inevitability now feels like a scrambled mish-mash of questionable vegan-substitute ingredients.
Here’s how strange things got in Foxboro yesterday during Philadelphia’s 35-28 win over the Patriots – at one point, it appeared that the Eagles had sealed a victory on a pass from Sam Bradford to Riley Cooper, that old outspoken country-music enthusiast pal of ours who caught exactly one ball all afternoon. That was silly enough, but then it got sillier, because the Eagles had already nearly bled away a 35-14 lead by giving up a pair of quick touchdowns, and then the Patriots forced a fumble on defense and Tom Brady got the ball back, and you couldn’t help but think that it might wind up being the kind of ridiculous comeback that would reinforce everything we thought about Tom Brady while also reinforcing everything we thought about the ever-on-the-verge Chip Kelly era in Philadelphia.
But the Eagles held on. The Eagles held on despite the fact that Bradford threw for 120 yards to Brady’s 312, and they held on even though they weren’t particularly effective running the ball, either. They held on because they returned a Brady interception for a touchdown and they held on because Darren Sproles is still Darren Sproles, which means that even as Kelly is constantly on the brink of getting fired, the Eagles are only a half-game out of first place in the NFC East. And the Patriots? The Patriots, Gronkless (at least for now) and directionless, are now in a scramble to regain an identity, and if they continue to slide after two straight losses, they could wind up losing out on home-field advantage in the AFC.
To be fair, anything as long and grueling as an NFL season has its ebbs and flows. But here is what we can say, definitively, at least for the moment: The Patriots are no longer the intimidating force they once were, and the Patriots are no longer the best team in the NFL. That would be the other team that glided past the halfway part of this season undefeated; that would be the team that stands at 12-0 after repeatedly coming back in a victory over the New Orleans Saints. It still feels odd to say it, but it must be said: The Carolina Panthers, at this point in the season, are the best team in the NFL.
It still feels like a tentative declaration, because this is professional football, and because Cam Newton always seems one wrongheaded decision away from getting knocked into next week. On Sunday at the goal line, it nearly happened, when Newton began coasting toward the end zone without noticing that a bulky Saints linebacker, Mike Mauti, was charging straight at his head. But the thing about Cam Newton is that he is as close to an indestructible running quarterback as we’ve seen; the thing about Cam Newton is that he appears to be laughing at all our preconceptions about what his limitations might be. He may not be the most modest man ever to play his position, but it is clear at this point that idiotic controversies over cheap banners and hysterical letters to the editor decrying his behavior don’t seem to affect him much. Cam Newton is going to do what he does.
And so on Sunday, Newton did what he had to do. With his team trailing 31-27 in the fourth, Newton threw off his back foot to speedy wide receiver Ted Ginn, who was streaking toward the end zone and managed to actually catch a football (which, with Ginn, is no guarantee). And after New Orleans came back and scored with 5:21 left, Newton led an 11-play, 75-yard drive that concluded with a bullet of a 15-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.
Panthers 41, Saints 38. Twelve wins, no losses. Already, Carolina has clinched the NFC South; the only thing standing between the Panthers and a perfect season is a holiday mélange: A pair of games against the sliding Falcons, one Jameis Winston and the erratic New York Giants. The odds are still stacked against them; many of the old wizened talking heads who subsume our Sunday mornings will continue to insist that the Seahawks, at 7-5, are still a more dangerous team than the Panthers.
And maybe they’re right. Who the hell knows at this point? We’ve reached that ebb-and-flow point of the NFL season, when the good teams start to seem bad and the bad teams offer glimpses of hope. The Patriots are far from dead, and the Panthers are far from crowned, but at least for now, they appear to be headed in opposite directions.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb