Did the Carolina Panthers look so good in Sunday's season opener because they are so good or because the San Francisco 49ers aren't so good?
The time for a good answer will have to wait for another day. As it should.
Panthers fans have waited more than eight months to watch their team play a meaningful game. Really more like nine months given that the chances of postseason participation were virtually gone with a month left last season.
So go ahead and smile. Every victory in the NFL is precious. Being 1-0 should feel good.
Being 1-0 every week is the long-stated approach taken by quarterback Cam Newton, a week-by-week and really day-by-day pursuit of success. Newton, coming off shoulder surgery, has plenty of room to improve after understandably looking "rusty" (head coach Ron Rivera's word) against the 49ers.
But Newton was good enough on this day, and same goes for the offense on the whole. Defenses typically are a bit ahead of offenses at the outset of the season, a sentiment that held true almost across the board aside from the Chiefs and Patriots bucking the trend in Thursday's thriller.
The Panthers defense was certainly ahead of the Panthers offense Sunday – and miles ahead of the 49ers offense. The defense yielded a handful of nice runs and benefited from some not-so-nice execution by a 49ers team coming off a 2-14 season, but the defense's sense of timing was impeccable.
Virtually every time the 49ers needed to make a play to keep a drive alive, the defense derailed those plans. San Francisco's final two drives of the first half ended when the 49ers opted to go for fourth-and-reasonable-lengths near midfield, only to meet resistance. The 49ers closed in on the end zone for the only time all game toward the end, and again the defense did the job on fourth down.
The defense didn't just stop at making stops; the defense got things started for the offense. Carolina's first touchdown followed a Wes Horton strip-sack/Star Lotulelei recovery. Carolina's second touchdown followed a Luke Kuechly interception.
The offense wasn't midseason sharp, but it took advantage of the majority of its opportunities. As a result, the Panthers took care of business in fairly convincing fashion.
Last season, the Panthers' disappointing 6-10 season included a maddening 2-6 record in games decided by three points or less. Sunday suggested a possible solution: Don't let the opposition keep it close.
The opposition, of course, will amp up in the weeks and months to come. While the schedule should be viewed as manageable to be sure, just two of the remaining 15 games are against teams that won fewer than seven games last season – a mark the Panthers couldn't achieve.
The Panthers believe last year was an anomaly. They believe the three NFC South titles that preceded it more accurately represent the current state of the franchise. In the NFL, however, it's about what you've done lately.
Well, regardless of the opposition, what the Panthers did most recently was fairly impressive.
For now – at least until next Sunday – that's good enough.
View photos from Carolina's victory over San Francisco to open the regular season.