CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Third-and-goal from the Seattle 1 in a Week 8 home loss sums up the first half of the Carolina Panthers' season.
Seattle blew up the right side of Carolina's offensive line, which had two undrafted rookies playing at guard and tackle because of injuries. Running back Jonathan Stewart lost 7 yards.
Carolina settled for a field goal.
Missed opportunities, as well as inconsistency on offense and a defense that has gone from one of the best in the NFL to subpar at best, says it all. So do injuries that limited leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to six quarters and led to four undrafted players starting on the offensive line.
Midseason MVP: This has to go to tight end Greg Olsen. He's been Carolina's most dependable and consistent player. He ranks among the league's top tight ends in catches (45), receiving yards (539) and touchdowns (5) to put him on a career-best pace in all three categories. In a Week 7 loss at Green Bay, he set a regular-season high with 105 yards receiving on eight catches. Until the past two games, when he was limited to four catches for 46 yards, he had easily been Carolina's best weapon. He has made a strong case for his first Pro Bowl selection.
Biggest disappointment: The defense. You easily could say defensive end Greg Hardy, who, before the third game, was placed on the commissioner's exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. His off-the-field issue has by far been the biggest single-player disappointment. But the defense overall has underperformed at mind-boggling proportions. It has gone from No. 2 in the league in points allowed per game (15.01) to 25th (26.2). It has given up 236 points in nine games after allowing only 241 all of last season. Bad gap control. Missed tackles. Lack of discipline. Everything this unit excelled at in 2013 has been consistently lacking.
Best moment: It occurred on second-and-10 early in the fourth quarter of a Week 2 win over Detroit. Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin had just dropped a routine pass. Quarterback Cam Newton came right back to Benjamin on the left side. The ball was overthrown and off target, but 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin twisted his body and hauled in the pass with one hand, then got two feet down before going out of bounds, for a 24-yard pickup. It led to the decisive touchdown and showcased the reason the Panthers drafted Benjamin to replace all-time leading receiver Steve Smith.
Worst moment: Baltimore faced third-and-2 from the Carolina 39 in the second quarter of a scoreless game in Week 4. Quarterback Joe Flacco overthrew a pass to tight end Owen Daniels, who got his fingertips on the pass just enough to tip the ball into the air. Smith caught the ball in stride and went 61 yards for a touchdown. Smith, whose release in March dominated Carolina's offseason talk, went on to catch seven passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers lost 38-10 to begin a 1-4-1 skid.
Key to the second half: The schedule gets considerably easier. The combined record of Carolina's remaining opponents is 21-32. Injured players are starting to get healthy. Leading rusher Williams returned for a Week 9 loss to New Orleans after missing four straight games. Starting left tackle Byron Bell, left guard Amini Silatolu and possibly right guard Trai Turner should be back for Week 10 against Philadelphia. But it all comes down to the consistency of the defense. When it plays well, the Panthers have a chance. If it doesn't, repeating as NFC South champs won't happen.