Going to extremes at the midpoint of the NFL season with the 5-3 Panthers:
Best call by unsung coach: On fourth-and-1 from the 14 Sunday, the Panthers ran a beautiful play-action pass and Cam Newton threw to a wide-open Greg Olsen for a TD (the end of the play is pictured above). Little-known fact -- that call was actually made by tight ends coach Pete Hoener, according to offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Biggest surprise (defense): Safety Mike Mitchell has tied for the team lead with three interceptions and has added an element of physicality.
Biggest surprise (offense): Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has two touchdowns of 40-plus yards and has also made several tough catches in traffic, which is supposed to be his weakness. Both Ginn and Mitchell were key offseason pickups by new general manager Dave Gettleman -- and came cheaply.
Worst turnover: DeAngelo Williams' fumble inside the 10 against Seattle cost the Panthers a chance to beat one of the NFL's premier teams. Williams has rebounded nicely, though, and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season.
Best bounce: How did Brandon LaFell ever recover that fumble Sunday? No way that ball bounces to him in 2011 or 2012.
Best trend: "Riverboat" Ron Rivera changed his stripes after the 0-2 start and now seems to go for at least one fourth-and-1 on every game. The Panthers are 5-for-7 on fourth downs this season, and the confidence instilled by Rivera's gambling has permeated the franchise. Even when they inevitably don't make one, this is a positive sign of Rivera's growth as a coach.
Worst loss: Buffalo, 24-23 in Week 2. The Bills (3-6) just aren't very good, and to allow them to go 80 yards with no timeouts and a rookie quarterback was really bad even for a banged-up Panther defense. Plus, Rivera could have put the game away by simply going for a fourth-and-1 before any of that happened.
First-half MVP (offense): Quarterback Cam Newton, who is playing the best he ever has and has the stats to back it up. Newton's leadership skills have also taken a leap -- he is no longer the occasionally pouty player he was in his first two seasons.
First-half MVP (defense): Linebacker Luke Kuechly doesn't have as many tackles this season as teams try to account for him more, but he already has three interceptions and shows an uncanny knack for the ball.
First-half MVP (special teams): Graham Gano. You can't do any better than 36-for-36 on kicks -- Gano has made all 24 of his extra points and all 12 of his field goals (including four from 50-plus). And 81.4 percent of his kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. (Gano is shown below, getting congratulated by Rivera).
Best stat Part 1: Nothing matters more than points in the NFL, and the Panthers are No.2 in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 13.2 per game. Only 9-0 Kansas City has done better, although the offenses the Panthers are about to play are very high-powered.
Best stat Part 2: The Panthers' defense has allowed three points in the first quarter -- total! -- over the first eight games. The offense gave up a safety, but overall the Panthers have outscored teams 38-5 in the first quarter and 58-28 in the second. That's why it seems like they are almost always playing from ahead.
Best way to get to 10-6: My preseason prediction for the Panthers (10-6) is still possible, although it will be difficult. To get to 10 -- which I think will put the Panthers in the playoffs -- the simplest way would be to go 5-3 in the second half like this:
1) Beat Atlanta and Tampa Bay one more time each.
2) Split with New Orleans.
3) Go 2-2 in these four difficult games: at San Francisco, New England, New York Jets and at Miami.
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