The Carolina Panthers are 1-2 in the NFC South and 1-3 overall at the first-quarter mark of the 2012 NFL season after losing a couple of close divisional games and being blown out by the defending Super Bowl champions in front of a national television audience two weeks ago.
A 2-2 record in September would have been acceptable for a team many expected to reach the NFL playoffs this season for the first time in four years, especially after facing two divisional teams on the road and hosting the defending league and division champions.
Instead, the dust had hardly settled on Carolina's lackluster performance in Week 3 when the Panthers lost to the Atlanta Falcons with victory in their grasp, gifting Matt Ryan's team with an unimaginable comeback win in the final minute of last weekend's game.
Suddenly 2-2 became 1-3 and all hell broke loose in Panthers Nation.
Reasons For Optimism
What could have been a successful first month turned into failure. Optimism about the team is weening.
Fans are calling local radio shows demanding Marty Hurney's head and Ron Rivera has been chastised for creating a losing culture in Charlotte on this very site.
However, the evidence on the field points in a different direction for a young Carolina team experiencing growing pains and whose coaching staff and players are learning to bounce back from adversity and to win on a weekly basis.
Unfortunately for Cam Newton and Co., the NFL has an extremely sharp learning curve and the season is already a quarter of the way over.
But if you throw out the 36-7 Thursday night loss to the New York Giants—the most disappointing Panthers performance since their 20-point loss to Kurt Warner's Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 NFL playoffs—Carolina beat the New Orleans Saints, nearly defeated the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, and lost a six-point game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thanks to special teams miscue.
How Carolina Will Win
The Panthers' strongest unit—their offense—has been woefully inconsistent this season, scoring four touchdowns and averaging 209 rushing yards in their best two performances. They reached the end zone just once and averaged 33 yards on the ground in their worst two games.
However, Carolina's players responded with conviction following their Week 3 loss to the Giants by playing their best overall game on the road last week versus the Falcons.
The Carolina offense is best when the read-option running game is clicking on all cylinders and the Panthers will need to produce on the ground to win three of their next four games.
Carolina's three-headed monster of Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart needs to gain about 150 yards per game for the Panthers to have a chance to win, and their outbursts against New Orleans and Atlanta already this season proves that they can do it.
Defensively, the Panthers have a talent deficit at nearly every position, but they have excelled this season at one very specific skill and that is getting to the quarterback.
The Carolina pass rush finally clicked in Week 4, culminating in a franchise-record, seven-sack performance against the Atlanta Falcons.
Charles "Big Money" Johnson had the breakout game at defensive end that Panthers fans have been waiting for since Julius Peppers packed his bags and moved to Chicago.
Carolina has still not shown any evidence it can stop anyone's rushing attack, but if the defensive front four can harass quarterbacks, create more turnovers and help win the field-position battle in the next four-game stretch, the Panthers' offense will climb the NFL ranks and more victories should follow.
Second Quarter Game Predictions
While I do not recommend taking my predictions to your local bookie or on-line betting site, here are my picks for the next four Panthers games as the second quarter of the 2012 NFL season gets underway.
Week 5: Seattle Seahawks at Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers 27, Seattle Seahawks 23
Week 7: Dallas Cowboys at Carolina Panthers
Carolina Panthers 31, Dallas Cowboys 24
Week 8: Carolina Panthers at Chicago Bears
Carolina Panthers 28, Chicago Bears 34
Week 9: Carolina Panthers at Washington Redskins
Carolina Panthers 24, Washington Redskins 20
Jimmy Grappone is a Featured Columnist covering the Carolina Panthers and the NFL on BleacherReport.com.
Please join the conversation by following me on Twitter @jimmygrappone and be sure to check out my archives for more Panthers articles.
Recent articles by Jimmy Grappone: