The Carolina Panthers can only hope that their third 6-2 start is as meaningful as the franchise's previous two.
The 2003 and 2005 teams parlayed 6-2 starts into 11-5 records that propelled them to a Super Bowl and an NFC championship game. However, the Panthers have plenty of issues to address during their midseason bye if they want to repeat history.
The Cardiac Cats rallied on Sunday from a 17-3 third-quarter deficit for the second time this season, yet their flair for the dramatic is a dangerous M.O. for teams that fancy themselves title contenders.
Here are five concerns about the Panthers:
1. Establishing a ground game
One of the strongest parallels in the Panthers' two losses is the inability to run the ball. Carolina mustered a season-low 40 rushing yards on 20 attempts during a 27-3 loss to the Buccaneers. In a 20-10 loss to the Vikings, the Panthers managed just 47 rushing yards on 20 carries. Meanwhile, in their six victories, the Panthers have exceeded 100 rushing yards, with an average of 118.5 per game.
The issue for the Panthers is that neither DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart is all that explosive. Williams' longest run is 39 yards, and his longest touchdown is 32 yards, coming against the lowly Chiefs on Oct. 5. Stewart had a lot of explosive runs at Oregon, including an 88-yard touchdown, but his longest run for the Panthers is a modest 24 yards.
They are also the primary reason the Panthers are a disappointing 18th in the NFL with an average of 5.27 yards on first-down plays.
2. Void in the middle
The Panthers boast one of the best sets of linebackers and cornerbacks in the NFL. But there is a glaring hole on defense.
Kemoeatu strips the ball from Edgerrin James.
(Getty Images/Chris McGrath)
In February, the Panthers traded three-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins to the Jets for third- and fifth-round picks. The Panthers and Jenkins were at odds on several issues, and the club wasn't willing to invest in the 29-year-old long term. However, neither Maake Kemoeatu nor Damione Lewis have been able to replace Jenkins.
"Kris Jenkins is the missing piece," an NFC personnel director said. "They just don't have that plugger in the middle."
The Panthers' run defense hasn't exactly been a strong point this season, ranked 14th in the NFL. Those numbers, though, are skewed by the measly 35 rushing yards they gave up to the Chiefs and 50 they gave up to the Cardinals. The other six opponents have been over 100 yards, with the Bucs pounding them for a season-high 142.
In addition, behind the athletic linebackers, are a pair of underwhelming safeties.
Rookie Charles Godfrey has been average, and while veteran Chris Harris is disruptive (he has two forced fumbles this season after leading the league with eight last year), the 6 foot, 205-pound defender just doesn't scare anyone.
"He's done a good job, but he's not an intimidating force," the personnel director said. "Receivers aren't afraid to go across the middle with him there."
3. Not so special teams
The Panthers have two of the best kickers in the NFL, with John Kasay a perfect 16-for-16 on field goals, including a 50-yarder against the Cardinals, and Rhys Lloyd leading the league with 16 touchbacks on kickoffs. However, punter Jason Baker isn't having such a memorable season.
He is a respectable 11th in the NFL, with an average punt of 46.5 yards, but Baker's unit has had three punts blocked, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The latest came in the blowout loss to the Bucs, in the first few minutes.
The issues on special teams don't stop there.
The Panthers are struggling covering kickoffs (24.3 yards, which is 26th in the NFL) and producing big plays on punt returns (a long of 31 yards).
The postseason typically features well-rounded clubs, and special teams often provide a play or two that impacts the outcome. At the current pace, the Panthers are doomed for an early exit, given their not-so-special unit.
4. Smith needs support
After serving a two-game suspension at the start of the year, Steve Smith is back to his dominant ways. Smith has 33 catches for 613 yards, and his 18.6-yards per catch average is third only to Lee Evans (20.5) and Calvin Johnson (20.3) among receivers with at least 29 receptions.
Smith also has four receiving touchdowns and three consecutive games with 100 or more receiving yards. Smith is obviously doing his share, but the question is, does he have enough help?
Muhsin Muhammad leads the team with 37 catches, but the 35-year-old receiver's age appears to be catching up to him. Both of his touchdowns are over 35 yards, which is encouraging, but he looked ordinary in his last three games with 12 catches for 149 yards.
Against the Cardinals, Muhammad fumbled a ball out of bounds, and he flat dropped a sure touchdown pass from Delhomme.
Muhammad started off strong, but has begun to tail off.
(US Presswire/Chuck Burton)
The Panthers have two young tight ends who show some promise, Jeff King and Dante Rosario, and D.J. Hackett is working his way back from a knee sprain. But someone will need to emerge as a steady threat so opposing defenses don't scheme ways to take Smith out of games.
If anything, the NFC personnel director said, the Panthers could use a greater physical presence at tight end, reminiscent of Wesley Walls.
"Their two tight ends are good," the director said, "but they're not exceptional."
5. Striking a balance
Coach John Fox was considered to be on the hot seat at the start of the season. While a playoff berth could lead to his return, the coach would be well-served to improve his in-game management.
Specifically, the defensive-minded Fox needs to shore up his decision-making on offense.
Against the Vikings, with a 10-3 lead, Fox green-lighted an aggressive mentality with 1:40 left in the first half and the ball on Carolina's 27-yard line.
The Panthers took a downfield shot to Smith on second down. But the Panthers inexplicably continued to press on third-and-eight. Delhomme took a full drop, waiting for his receivers to separate down the field. But he didn't see Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield hurtling toward from his strong-side because he was looking to his left.
Winfield slammed into Delhomme, jarred the ball loose and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 10-10.
With 57 seconds left, Delhomme dropped back two more times, taking yet another sack just before the half. This time, though, he held onto the ball.
Conversely, a few weeks with the Panthers in Tampa trailing 17-3 just before the half, the aggressive Fox seemed to turn too conservative.
After Tampa Bay's Matt Bryant missed a 51-yard field goal, the Bucs had the ball at their own 41 with two timeouts. But in this instance, instead of trying one pass to set up a long field goal attempt by Kasay, who's career-long is 56 yards, Fox opted to take a knee and head into the locker room.
The next week, against the Saints, the Panthers get the ball at their own 9 with 58 seconds and three outs remaining. Williams ran the ball up the middle three consecutive times before Baker punted the ball away.
Given the issues punting the ball, that decision may be considered risky.
Sean Jensen covers the NFL and the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.