CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Here's a look at the first half of the season for the Carolina Panthers and a preview of what to expect the second half:
First-half snapshot: There was quarterback Cam Newton throwing six touchdowns to one interception in road wins at New England and Detroit. There was Newton throwing five picks and one touchdown in consecutive losses to Philadelphia and Chicago. Perhaps the clearer picture of what the Panthers (5-3) can be came in a 17-3 win at Tampa Bay in Week 8. Newton had his moments but wasn't spectacular. The defense was spectacular, holding an opponent without an offensive touchdown for the fourth time. As coach Ron Rivera said, it was a glimpse of what he believes the team can be. Stay tuned to whether it can consistently be that team.
Midseason MVP: Defensive end Julius Peppers. At 37, he's still one of the best at getting to the quarterback. He reached 7.5 sacks in eight games, the second-fastest start of his career. He passed Chris Doleman for fourth on the NFL's all-time sack list with 151. He has helped new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks be more aggressive with blitz packages in that opponents have to focus on Peppers, leaving linebackers and safeties free to pressure the quarterback. He has brought leadership and stability to the league's second-ranked defense.
Best moment: Kicker Graham Gano nailing a winning 48-yard field goal on the final play of a 33-30 victory at New England. The Panthers squandered a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, keeping the Panthers from losing a second straight game and falling to 2-2. A loss there might have had the same impact as the 21-20 loss in last year's opener at Denver in which Gano missed a late 50-yarder. That sent the then-defending NFC champions spiraling to a 1-5 start from which they never recovered. That the team kept Gano over seventh-round pick Harrison Butker also made the kick significant. Had he missed that one there would have been a lot questions for the organization.
Worst moment: Losing 34-13 to an 0-2 New Orleans team at home rates as the worst loss, but the worst moment was when middle linebacker Luke Kuechly left in the second quarter against Philadelphia and was put in the concussion protocol for the third time in as many years. Kuechly missed only one game, but for a player of his stature to go into the protocol again, it left a numbing effect on the team and the home crowd. Statistics show the Panthers are better with Kuechly. They are 5-5 in the 10 games he has missed because of a concussion since 2015.
Second-half outlook: Five of the final eight games are at home, and the Panthers get a bye during the stretch run, as well. So with the defense playing lights out, a favorable home schedule and the expected return of Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen (broken foot) after the bye, the Panthers are in great shape to control their own destiny. Much depends on the play of Newton. If he can avoid the mistakes that cost the Panthers a prime-time win against Philadelphia, this team can be as good as any in the NFC. There's no need to think this team can't get to 10 or even 11 wins and be a contender for the NFC South title.