The Carolina Panthers finished the first half of the season with a 6-2 record. Here's a look at how they have fared and what's ahead:
First-half rewind: Carolina had quality wins against Dallas, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Overcoming a 17-0 fourth-quarter deficit against the Eagles will be the turning point if this season continues to go well. Carolina protected its home turf, going 5-0. Quarterback Cam Newton adjusted smoothly to new coordinator Norv Turner's offense and had the best first eight games of his career, with 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. A rebuilt offensive line held up better than expected, and left tackle Matt Kalil will be available the final eight games, though that will be a tough call given how well Chris Clark is playing. The defense is starting to play at a top-10 level, maybe top five. Grade: Above average
What's the biggest factor in the Panthers' making a deep playoff run? Getting past the Saints twice and winning on the road. That's what made the win at Philadelphia huge. Five of the final eight games are away from Bank of America Stadium, including the finale in New Orleans. Carolina was 0-3 against the Saints last season, including a first-round playoff loss in New Orleans. If the Panthers prove that they can beat Drew Brees & Co., they can beat any team.
MVP: You've heard it here on multiple occasions: As Newton goes, so go the Panthers. Newton is off to a better start than in the 2015 season, when he won the NFL MVP Award. He has bought into Turner's system, and his completion percentage, which was 58.5 his first seven seasons, is 67.3 -- right in the 65-to-70 percent range Turner wanted. To win big games on the road, Newton will have to come up big, as he did in Philadelphia, where he engineered three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 21-17 victory.
Biggest surprise: The offensive line. This looked like a disaster heading into the season, with injuries to right tackle Daryl Williams, left guard Amini Silatolu and left tackle Matt Kalil. At one point, when right guard Trai Turner was out with a concussion, only center Ryan Kalil was at the position at which he opened camp. Tackle Taylor Moton has come up huge, and the play of the veteran Clark, a late addition, will make it interesting to see how Matt Kalil is used when he returns. He is not expected to be activated this week.
Hurdle to overcome: As mentioned above, the Saints. Carolina had no answer for Brees last season, giving up an average of 32 points in three losses. Brees threw six touchdowns with only one interception in those games. If the Saints win the two games against the Panthers in the final three weeks, the NFC South and home-field advantage for at least one playoff game should be theirs. If not, a lot will be riding on the season finale in New Orleans.