The Carolina Panthers are in first place in the NFC South, the worst division in football a season ago. But the division is no longer at the bottom of the barrel, and in fact, being on top of it now is a big accomplishment. In 2014, the Panthers won the division with a pitiful 7-8-1 record, barely making it into the playoffs. A year later, they boast a 5-0 record as one of five undefeated teams remaining in the NFL.
It's a remarkable turnaround, and the Panthers look like they're here to stay. Despite bumps in the road for both sides of the ball and several close games thus far this season, they've made it unscathed and currently lead the Atlanta Falcons by half a game in the division.
Atlanta is coming off a loss to the New Orleans Saints, but the team is still impressing at 5-1. The NFC South race remains close, and the Panthers and Falcons will meet twice before it's all said and done.
But no one expected the Panthers to be where they right now. How have they been able to overcome long odds to remain perfect so far in 2015?
Cam Newton is making lemonade out of lemons
Quarterback Cam Newton is having an excellent season -- so much so that he could be on track to win league MVP. It's a little surprising given that the Panthers rank 30th in the league in total offense, ahead of only the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Rams.
But a quick glance at the weapons Newton is working with should put his stats into perspective. Jonathan Stewart is the starting running back, and he's averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, with two touchdowns and 298 total yards. Newton himself is second on the team with 225 rushing yards and three touchdowns. As far as targets go, Ted Ginn Jr. -- previously known more for his speed than pass-catching ability -- is the top receiver with Kelvin Benjamin out for the season with a torn ACL. Behind Ginn are Corey Brown, veteran Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Devin Funchess.
Tight end Greg Olsen is Newton's safety blanket, though. He's leading the team with 24 passes for 374 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning score against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6. Next on the team is Ginn, with 13 receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns. No other Panthers receiver has more than eight catches or 100 yards.
While Newton's stats might seem pedestrian -- 55.4 completion percentage, 1,078 yards, eight touchdowns and four interceptions -- he's been making the huge plays when they need to be made, and he's been giving his defense the room it needs to work.
SB Nation presents: The reasons why Cam Newton is the best
Carolina's defense is balling
As expected, the Panthers' defense is performing well this season. More unexpected is how they've managed to rank fifth in the league in total defense without some of their biggest players. Star linebacker Luke Kuechly returned against the Seahawks in limited action after suffering a concussion in Week 1 while defensive end Charles Johnson is on injured reserve with a hamstring injury.
One defensive player who has stepped up his game is cornerback Josh Norman, who leads the NFL with four interceptions so far this year, two of which were returned for a touchdown. Now in his fourth season, Norman is starting to make a name for himself -- in fact, the Seahawks only threw his way once last Sunday.
Although the Panthers haven't gone up against the best offenses in the league just yet, they've still put together a well-balanced defense that ranks eighth in the league against the pass and sixth against the run. They've been getting stops and they're getting good pressure on the quarterback, racking up 13 sacks in five games. It's been a team effort, too --Thomas Davis, Kawann Short, Mario Addison and Ryan Delaire all have two sacks each.
How do they compare to the other undefeated teams?
While Carolina's defense is playing well, the defense is starting to allow opponents to score more. The Panthers gave up just nine points in Week 1, but in their last four games, those numbers are starting to creep up (17, 22, 23 and 23). The lack of offensive weapons on that team could eventually catch up to them and cost the Panthers a loss. Newton, for as great a year as he's having, can only carry the offense so much.
Carolina's turnaround might not have been predicted by many, but of the other remaining unbeatens, only the Cincinnati could be considered a surprise. The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers are perennial Super Bowl contenders, but Andy Dalton and the Bengals have underperformed as a whole in recent years, especially in the playoffs. Yet, the Bengals still have the weapons to warrant high expectations, so their performance is not altogether shocking.
The Panthers seem like a team right on the edge of success, and Sunday's comeback win over the Seahawks is their most promising sign yet. But their outlook only gets rosier when you glance at the Panthers' schedule. They play against teams in the struggling NFC East, as well as against cellar-dwellers like the Titans, Buccaneers and Saints.
The toughest games on the schedule include two against the Falcons and a two-game stretch against the Indianapolis Colts and Packers -- and both of those games are at home. At this point, Ron Rivera's team looks like a shoo-in for the playoffs. Their record probably won't stay perfect, but for now, the Panthers have shown they're a stronger team than many thought.