When you look at the Panthers' record through the first half of the season, it doesn't seem out of line with preseason predictions. Most, without knowing the fine details of each game to this point, would assume that the team got lucky a couple times, but they're still in a lump of trouble for the second half of the schedule.
That's not the case though. Cam Newton has revived the franchise, and the resounding feeling is that the Panthers are possibly the best 2-6 football team we have seen in recent memory. They have the franchise quarterback, they have the offensive weapons and they have the defensive talent—but much of it is sitting on the sidelines.
It's easy to be discouraged by another close loss to the Vikings, but here's some second half predictions to get your hopes up for the next eight weeks.
This may not be the most bold prediction on the list, but it deserves a spot. Newton has defied the logic of nearly every pro scout in the country and come into the league as a polished passer and an electrifying runner.
Newton has almost single-handedly transformed the league's worst offense into one of the best, truly laying claim to the idea that the quarterback position is the most important of all.
Newton does have a few rookies on his trail, like the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green combo in Cincinnati, but neither of those players have burst onto the scene the way that this Panthers quarterback has.
Smith has been the biggest beneficiary of Cam Newton's presence in Carolina. He has already surpassed last seasons receiving and touchdown marks by 350 yards and two touchdowns. With the pace that he's on, he will finish the season with nearly 1,850 receiving yards, just off the pace of the league record.
Smith has failed to slow down, week after week, and he and Newton will only continue to build chemistry and better timing. It's an amazing combo to watch and as Cam improves, Steve will only become more dangerous.
The Panthers currently stand at 2-6 so for them to finish .500, they will need to flip that record for the second half of the season and go 6-2.
This is a team that has already shocked us once and coming off a bye, I expect them to deliver another shock. We know that this offense is as highly powered as any in the league, but the problem has been the defense.
With a bye week, and an extra week to get healthy, I fully expect Ron Rivera to make the necessary adjustments to this defense and have them playing much better football in the second half of the season.
Following a slow start to the season, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have been on a tear since. They have accounted for some big plays and are even more effective at attracting the defense's attention away from Cam Newton, opening up the passing game.
However, offensive play-calling has kept the ball out of their hands when they are most effective, the second half. Rob Chudzinski needs to take a look in the mirror and ask himself why he continues to abandon the run game following halftime. If he re-commits to the run game, I expect to see big things out of Stewart and Williams.
Charles Johnson: 7.0 sacks
Julius Peppers: 4.0 sacks
Panthers fans may occasionally act like they're not rooting for Peppers to fail in Chicago, but this would be a sweet moment for every fan who still felt a sense of betrayal by the defensive end's exit.
Johnson has had a sack in all but one game this year and has been a heartbeat away from getting to the quarterback on multiple occasions. Peppers, on the other hand, has had sacks in only three games this season. He has been more effective against the rush and doesn't seem to have that burst off the edge that made him a great pass rusher.
If Johnson continues on his pace, it wouldn't be a surprise for him to double Peppers' sack total for the season.
Chris Gamble has been a lock-down corner throughout the first half of the season. The Panthers lack much depth in their secondary, so Gamble's emergence as a top flight corner has kept opposing passing attacks at bay.
He hasn't been the ball hawk that we remember from previous seasons, but his ability to all but eliminate the opponent's top target will earn him respect and a Pro Bowl selection.
With Thomas Davis and Jon Beason out for the season with injuries, James Anderson has stepped up in a big way for Carolina. He has been a tackling machine and stepped up as the defensive signal-caller.
He trails only NaVorro Bowman for the NFC lead. Bowman has fellow linebacker Patrick Peterson to compete with and hasn't been on the torrent pace of Anderson lately, so I'll give the Panthers linebacker the edge for the title when all is said and done.
The Panthers may have the most balanced offense in the league; they currently rank fifth in passing yards and seventh in rushing.
There are a lot of great offense's in the NFL right now, but none has more versatility than the Panthers'. They have a two-headed monster at running back, a quarterback who runs more effectively than any other in the league and can sling the ball with great deep accuracy, the league's top receiver, and another two-headed monster at tight end.
Not to mention, they have a fantastic offensive line. With their mix of youth and experience, it's hard to imagine the Panthers not standing among the best once the season comes to an end.
The guy has been very consistent in recent years, but likely every kicker, he is prone to that moment where you fail when your team needs you most.
He did exactly that on Sunday, but I believe he will turn it around. With as many close games as the Panthers have, all it takes is one confidence building, late game kick, to return Mare to the form that the Panthers expected when they signed him this offseason.
I have been expecting this all along, but maybe never more than following this week. LaFell made yet another clutch reception on the Panthers' final drive against Minnesota to keep Carolina alive. This has been a continuous trend, and it has to garner the attention of the coaching staff.
Legedu Naanee has been a dissapointment to this point and LaFell has gotten open, but Newton has failed to see him at times, likely due to lack of practice time between the two. If LaFell does get his chance, I doubt he will look back, adding another dimension to this offense.