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This Week In Football

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The Carolina Panthers are on fire. They take on the New Orleans Saints this afternoon. And the Panthers are the favorite with a perfect record in this season, 11 and 0. Now, my question is how did this team that is only as old as the Backstreet Boys get to this place? Mike Pesca is the host of The Gist. He's here to explain. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The Backstreet Boys are older than 20.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PESCA: Maybe they're as old as when the Backstreet Boys got popular, you know?

MARTIN: OK, fine. What are you with the facts? I mean, come on.

PESCA: They're five years older than Adele, OK?

MARTIN: Oh, that would have been good.

PESCA: They're as old as Google, at least.

MARTIN: OK, fine. Point taken. How are we here? How are we here?

PESCA: I will tell you.

MARTIN: How are the Panthers at this place?

PESCA: Yeah, I will tell you. But first I want to note, if you represent NPR's youth movement, we are really in trouble.

MARTIN: Can you lay off?

(LAUGHTER)

PESCA: So the Panthers have a great defense. They have a really great pass defense. The NFL these days is all about passing. And they have a good run defense. Other than the truly excellent Denver Broncos in the other conference, best defense in football. And then on offense, they don't have much. But the one thing they have is Cam Newton. Maybe you've heard of him. Maybe you've seen him in yogurt commercials.

MARTIN: I dig him.

PESCA: And I kind of love Cam Newton.

MARTIN: Me too.

PESCA: Statistically, I don't know that he rises above a lot of NFL quarterbacks. But I think he's particularly suited to do what the Panthers need him to do.

MARTIN: He also just looks like he's having so much fun every time he's on - that's what I pay attention to. I mean, yeah, throw passes...

PESCA: Yes, no, I think - well, listen...

MARTIN: There's joy, Mike, there's joy.

PESCA: There is a joie de Cam.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PESCA: And I think that maybe we could look at that as a something like leadership or something like confidence because, you know, he's a great running quarterback. And the trend in the NFL was to - for years and years - just passing. And then a bunch of quarterbacks who could hurt the other team with their legs came in. But guess what? Those guys also tended to get hurt more often 'cause they put themselves in harm's way. And so you have quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III not even playing this year and Colin Kaepernick also cut. So that trend of these hybrid quarterbacks sort of went away, except for Cam Newton. He's so big. He's so strong. Also, by necessity, he has to do it. His running is great. And the thing I want to point out is Cam - with Cam is that even though his passing statistically isn't good, I watch a lot of his games. He throws the ball extremely accurately. And his receivers - I don't know if they're listening to Snoop Dogg or what, but they drop it like it's hot. They have guys like Ted Ginn Jr., who almost lead the league in drops. And he has almost no one to throw to. So how do you - he has a good tight end, Greg Olsen - but among his receivers, they're bad. His two offensive tackles are bad, so Cam's always having to run around, getting away from coverage. That guy is more important to his team than any player, and I include Tom Brady in that assessment.

MARTIN: Whoa.

PESCA: Cam Newton - without Cam Newton, they would not be close to 11 and 0. They might not even be a winning team.

MARTIN: OK, can we see a Panthers-Pats Super Bowl?

PESCA: You know what's interesting? Both of those two teams - Carolina and New England - are not named after cities or states. Interesting. That would be a cool Super Bowl. I think that the - actually the Patriots have a better chance to get there. They're just a better team. The thing that the Panthers have going for them is their conference is sort of weak, especially related to the AFC. So I would say right now, the Panthers are the most likely in their conference to make the Super Bowl. But I still don't know if I would say, quote, unquote, "likely." I wouldn't say they're the odds-on favorite.

MARTIN: OK, you got a curveball?

PESCA: Sure. Let's go to the world of luge.

MARTIN: Let's.

PESCA: Now, I don't have to tell you this is the - this is a sport that we only pay attention to once a quadrennial. And let's face it, do we really pay attention? Well, we pay attention, in the United States, if our players - if our athletes do well. And in the World Championship of luge, the American women swept the podium. I will read you the three names of the medalists - Erin Hamlin, Emily Sweeney and Summer Britcher, which I think is a kind of odd but funny name for a luge/winter athlete. But way to go, USA.

MARTIN: Go ladies.

PESCA: Exactly.

MARTIN: Go USA. Mike Pesca, the host of The Gist on slate.com. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.