The Carolina Panthers have the statistical and mental chops to win a Super Bowl.

Do they have the cojones?

The Panthers took a step toward answering that question with their dominating 34-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday. Sure, the Falcons are wounded and stumbling through a 2-6 season. But these are the same Matt Ryan Falcons who went 13-3 and earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed last year.

In terms showing that changes are afoot in the NFC South, and in the NFC in general, it was a fairly impressive statement, especially considering that the statistically impressive Panthers had generally failed to deliver on the scoreboard, with a humble 4-3 record entering Week 9.

But the team looks a lot more solid now in wake of that dominating win, moving to 5-3, sitting just a game out of first in the division and, perhaps most tantalizingly, shooting to the top of our Quality Stats Power Rankings.

So if your'e looking for a solid Super Bowl dark horse, a team nobody has taken seriously but that can win it all, take a look at the Carolina Panthers. 

They're your 2013 Super Bowl dark cat at the midpoint of the season. Now the pressure is on the Panthers to put some meat behind the statistical proficiency.

We talk a lot here about statistical equilibrium: the fact that, except for rare exceptions, a team's statistical profile ultimately falls into equilibrium with its won-loss record. For Carolina to achieve that statistical equlibrium, they need to piece together a big-time winning streak.

But it won't be easy: after facing just one Quality Opponent so far this year, the second-half schedule includes the surging Patriots and 49ers and two games still against high-powered NFC South rival New Orleans.

The season, and even a Super Bowl berth, is there for the taking. Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly and the rest of the statistically proficient Panthers just need to prove they have the chops to grab destiny by the balls.

See our entire Quality Stats Power Rankings list here.


Week 10 Quality Stats Power Rankings Top 10

1.Carolina Panthers (5-3) – The well-rounded Panthers rank in the Top 10 in 20 of 23 Quality Stats, including top spots in Defensive Rusher Rating, Rusher Rating Differential and Total Team Yards Allowed. They’re also No. 2 in Bendability, the Defensive Hog Index and the Relativity Index (+9.27 PPG).

The biggest concern: just one game so far against a Quality Opponent, as 12-7 Week 1 loss at home to Seattle.


2. Seattle Seahawks (8-1) – The Seahawks took a public image hit when they fell behind to winless Tampa last week 21-0 before storming back for the win in the second half. They also took a statistical hit, falling from No. 1 to No. 2 in our Quality Stats Power Rankings.

A deadly Super Bowl-ready pass defense remains the team’s biggest strength: No. 1 in Defensive Passing YPA (4.96); No. 2 in Defensive Real QB Rating (61.5); and No. 2 in Defensive Passer Rating (68.6).


3. Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) – The Chiefs, as we outlined earlier this week, are easily the smartest, most efficient team in the NFL this year, and among the very best of all time.

The core strength, of course, is a pass defense that gives Kansas City a fighting chance against any opponent: No. 1 in both Defensive Real QB Rating (58.9) and Defensive Passer Rating (67.8). The Chiefs have forced 17 total turnovers from quarterbacks through nine games.


4. New Orleans Saints (6-2) – A 26-20 loss to the New York Jets in Week 9 stands as one of the more disappointing outcomes by any team this season and dropped the statistical powerhouse Saints two spots in our Quality Stats Power Rankings.

New Orleans remains No. 1 in Real QB Rating Differential (+33.56) and, perhaps more encouragingly, No. 2 in Total Team Yards Allowed (3,248) halfway through the season. The 2012 Saints surrendered more than 7,000 yards of offense alone last year, and a total of 8,854 Total Team Yards.


5. San Francisco 49ers (6-2) – San Francisco’s ascension in recent weeks has largely been fueled by a soft recent schedule. The 49ers have faced three Quality Opponents this year (and were outscored by an average of 28-15 in those three contests). But all three came in the first three weeks of the season, and the team’s only Quality Win was over Green Bay back in Week 1.

Still, San Francisco boasts the statistical profile of a contender: Top 10 in 15 of 23 Quality Stats, led by a No. 3 ranking on the Relativity Index (+8.45 PPG). In other words, even if we adjust for the soft recent slate, the 49ers are performing above expectations.


6. Denver Broncos (7-1) – We’re the only outlet in America that hasn’t mindlessly placed the sexy Broncos atop their Power Rankings since just about the start of the season. But we stand by our unorthodox but more accurate ranking.

Denver is No. 1 in every measure of offensive efficiency and passing efficiency in particular, including No. 1 in Scoreability and No. 1 Passer Rating Differential, a great sign of Super Bowl potential. But statistical weak links almost always snap under pressure. And Denver’s statistical weak links right now are Defensive Real Passing YPA (No. 25) and Defensive Rusher Rating (No. 27).


7. Green Bay Packers (5-3) – Green Bay had been, like Denver, a statistical imbalanced team overly reliant on prolific play out of its quarterback.

So the Aaron Rodgers injury leaves the Packers particularly vulnerable, as the Planet Pigskin witnessed during the Monday night home loss to the Bears. Green Bay ranks 24th league wide in both Defensive Passer Rating and Defensive Rusher Rating.


8. Indianapolis Colts (6-2) – Last week we labeled the Colts the most statistically balanced team in the NFL. But their tougher-than-needed 27-24 victory over the Colts Sunday dropped the team three spots in our Quality Stats Power Rankings.

Indy has suffered a league-low six turnovers this year, but still must improve a pass defense that’s getting gashed down field (No. 21 in Defensive Real Passing YPA) and must find more explosive plays in all phases of the game (No. 21 in Total Team Yards, albeit with a game in hand). On the bright side, Indy is an NFL-best 3-0 against Quality Opponents.


9. New England Patriots (7-2) – The “Get Tough or Die” Patriots hit the bye week fresh off a historic 55-31 win over the down-and-out Steelers, the most points allowed in 80 years of Pittsburgh history. New England ranks in the top half of the league in 16 of 23 Quality Stats, led by a No. 3 ranking in all-important Defensive Passer Rating (74.2).


10. Cincinnati Bengals (6-3) – The Bengals certainly let one get away last Thursday in Miami: a clearly superior team that managed to lose on the road in overtime, in humbling fashion.

As we noted in our Real and Spectacular Pick before the game: “Cincinnati has been here before and Marv Lewis’s teams over the years have shown a remarkable knack of coughing up hairballs at inopportune times.”

Cough up a hairball indeed. And as a result, the Bengals dropped three spots to No. 10  in our Quality Stats Power Rankings. Cincy’s Big Name defensive front actually ranks a mere 21stt on our Defensive Hog Index, and is just 19tht at pressuring the passer (8.8% Negative Pass Plays).  

See the rest of our Quality Stats Power Rankings here.