Sapakoff: ‘Carolina ball’ might become an NFC dynasty

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) returns an interception for a touchdown against the Seattle Seahawks in their NFC playoff game Jan. 17 in Charlotte. (AP Photo)

Jerricho Cotchery coined the term.

“We just try to go out and play Carolina ball,” the Panthers’ wide receiver said after a playoff victory over Seattle on Jan. 17.

To exhausted defenses, “Carolina ball” might be the NFL’s highest-scoring team on the prowl, with offensive coordinator Mike Shula making maximum use of Cam Newton’s uniquely sensational passing and running skills.

To frustrated offenses, it’s probably Luke Kuechly returning an interception for a touchdown as Carolina expands a lead.

Newton has a simpler definition.

“Winning,” he said.

“Carolina ball” by any name has the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 and probably more. As long as Newton is healthy and Carolina doesn’t trade impact players to Cleveland for Johnny Manziel, there is the potential for a relative NFC dynasty within a conference that has never sent the same team to the Super Bowl three times in a row.

Why not?

The Panthers have already won three straight NFC South titles. No one else in the division seems ready for a takedown.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the franchise quarterback in Jameis Winston, but if he can match Newton’s arm strength and pocket presence, he isn’t the same kind of runaway truck running threat.

The New Orleans Saints are a threat as long as head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees are a tandem. That won’t last much longer.

The Atlanta Falcons have talent and frequently reinvent themselves into contender status. They usually implode.

Keeping up with the Panthers’ “Keep Pounding” policy will encourage NFC South teams to adapt. Watch for an unusual number of athletic defensive linemen and hybrid outside linebackers to turn up on draft and free agent lists.

Or maybe a run on the best-available cover cornerbacks in the 2016 draft, guys like Jalen Ramsey of Florida State, Vernon Hargreaves of Florida, Eli Apple of Ohio State and Mackensie Alexander of Clemson. Remember, while Newton made great strides as a long-range passer this season, Carolina played with its best receiver tied behind its back.

Just think how many points these guys can score next season when Kelvin Benjamin, out with a torn knee ligament since training camp, is back.

Win or lose the Super Bowl, the Panthers get to participate in the draft process, too. They will add new players to an already young cast that kept improving this season.

The NFC Championship Game team didn’t look much like the guys that struggled to a 20-9 victory at Jacksonville in the season opener. The Panthers survived a rash of dropped passes that hot afternoon and needed Josh Norman’s third-quarter interception return for a touchdown. They went home to as much criticism as praise.

After a 15-1 regular season, the Panthers started the playoffs with a 31-0 blowout of Seattle, the two-time defending NFC champ, followed by a complete 49-15 victory over Arizona in the NFC Championship Game.

“You see guys making plays, it’s contagious,” Newton said. “For us, we’ve been winning so much that when a guy makes a great play running the football, catching the football, passing the football, it’s contagious.”

The Panthers’ biggest weakness matches up well with Denver, barring an effective appearance by young Broncos’ quarterback Brock Osweiler off the bench. It is unlikely Peyton Manning will be able to fully exploit a Carolina secondary depleted by injuries to Bene Benwikere and Charles Tillman.

Denver has the best pass rush the NFL has seen in years, but who better to counter than Newton?

Prediction: Panthers 24, Broncos 21

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff