Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers have a break from the pads with a bye-week in Week 9.
With eight games to go and the Panthers enjoying their bye-week, here are eight things for Panthers fans to look forward to in the second half of the season.
8. The Panthers play four of their six NFC South divisional games in the second half of the season.
The ultimate goal of every NFL team is to win the Super Bowl, but in order to do that you must first make the playoffs. In order to make the playoffs, you must either be the best team in your division or have one of the two best records in your conference among non-division winners.
Divisional games are the most important games on a team's regular season schedule and the Panthers will use their remaining games against the Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to discover how they match-up and measure up against their NFC South foes.
7. The Panthers have suffered season-ending injuries to key players and have continued to play competitively.
Carolina suffered season-ending injuries to Pro-Bowl linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis in the first two games of the regular season and have since started a handful of other linebackers along the way, giving the team's only healthy regular linebacker, James Anderson, a chance to become one of the leaders of the Panthers defense, and giving other young players the opportunity to show their worth.
How many games will the Panthers win in the second half of the season?
The team has also suffered key injuries on the offensive side of the ball, placing right tackle Jeff Otah on season-ending injured reserve with back and knee issues and losing No. 2 wideout David Gettis for the year to a torn ACL in the preseason.
Otah has been replaced with an undrafted rookie, Byron Bell, and teammates Legedu Naanee and Brandon LaFell have each played well in stretches in trying to assume the No. 2 receiver position behind future 2011 All-Pro Steve Smith.
Though the replacements have struggled to realize the standards set by these wounded Panthers, they have played well enough to keep Carolina in every game, often down to the final minutes.
6. Six of the seven teams remaining on the Panthers' schedule—they play Tampa Bay twice—has a winning record through Week 8 of the NFL schedule.
Though playing .500 and better teams does not bode well for the winning prospects of a team that started the season with a 2-6 record, Carolina will learn more about its strengths and weaknesses playing against the better teams on its schedule than it will against the patsies, or in this case, the Colts.
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5. All good teams must first learn how to win. The second half of the season is a chance for the Panthers to learn how to win games against quality teams.
Unless they go on a tremendous winning streak of six or more games in the second half, the Panthers are playing the rest of this season to learn how to win games, and beating teams with winning records in the second-half of the season will play a large role in the team's prospects for success in 2012.
4. A 4-4 record over the last eight games would be considered a success.
Panthers fans have had much to be optimistic about so far this season, particularly compared to last season's disastrous 2-14 campaign in which the team was rarely competitive.
Carolina has already matched last season's win total, and though 2-6 is hardly a satisfactory mark, the Panthers have been in every game with a chance to win deep into the fourth quarter and could reasonably be entering the bye-week with a winning record.
The most important thing the Panthers can learn how to do in the second-half of the season is learn how to win close games. If Carolina is able to win at least four of its final eight games, they will have a foundation of defeating quality opponents to take into next season.
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3. Cam Newton is a virtual shoe-in for Rookie of the Year honors and could achieve the rarest of the rare accomplishments by making the Pro Bowl as a rookie quarterback behind Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees.
Put simply, Newton is playing some of the best statistical football in the NFL right now and he is on pace to break nearly every rookie quarterback passing record in league history.
Though Andy Dalton has captained the Cincinnati Bengals (5-2) to an impressive start, he has done so with the luxury of one of the league's top defenses of the first half of the season.
If Newton continues playing at the high-level he established in the first half of the season, or better yet, continues to improve as he becomes even more settled in the pro game, he will end the season among the NFL's passing leaders behind only Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady.
Not only will his numbers assure him ROY honors, but could very well land him on the Pro Bowl roster at the end of the year.
2. The Panthers bye-week comes at the ideal time.
Carolina's bye-week could not have come at a better time, splitting the season into equal eight-game segments.
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Though the Panthers suffered several early season-ending injuries, the core of the team they will play with the rest of the year is relatively healthy. However, after more than three months of continuous football going back to training camp, the Panthers have some weary bodies that could use the rest to prepare for the second half of the season.
The break also comes at an ideal time following their 23-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings in a Week 8 game the Panthers should have won.
Ideally, the Panthers players and coaches are using their down time wisely this week, and will be mentally and physically prepared to take on host the Tennessee Titans in Week 10.
1. Strong finishes by teams with losing records usually bode well for the following season.
The Detroit Lions won their last four game of 2010 before jumping out to a 5-0 start in 2011.
The Tennessee Titans lost the first six games of the 2009 season before winning eight of their final 10 games to finish 8-8. Though they missed the playoffs in 2010 with a 6-10 record, they are back in contention with a 4-3 record to start this season.
Strong finishes give teams confidence and experience to build on, and barring any more crucial injuries to key players, the Panthers will have every opportunity to play well in the second half of the 2011 season and to build the foundation for a winning NFL program behind Cam Newton and the nucleus of good, young players on the Carolina Panthers' roster.
The Carolina Panthers learned how to play in the first half of the season. In the second half, they simply need to learn how to win.