Five keys for final five-game stretch

Inexplicably, the Panthers remain firmly in the NFC South race despite their 3-7-1 record. In fact, Carolina can reclaim first place with a win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday combined with losses by the New Orleans Saints, who travel to Pittsburgh, and Atlanta Falcons, who host Arizona.

"It seems like the door keeps swinging open for us," safety Thomas DeCoud said. "We have to capitalize on it. It's weird, because the last five or six years this has been one of the best divisions in football, but this year it hasn't panned out that way.

"As long as that door is open for us, we're going to keep trying to take advantage of our opportunities."

Up to this point, the Panthers have failed to capitalize on a wide-open division, going winless since Week 5.

So what needs to change for Carolina to step through that open door and make a run at the division title with five games left?

1. CAN'T BEAT THEMSELVES: The Panthers are scoring 19.5 points per game, which ranks 24th in the league. This team isn't built to overcome mistakes with a quick-strike offense that can rack up points in a hurry. Turnovers, penalties and missed assignments are all magnified for a unit that's methodical in its approach. Clean football is essential for Carolina to give itself a chance in the remaining five games.

2. STARS PLAY LIKE STARS: Fullback Mike Tolbert mentioned this Monday – the Panthers need their best players to play like their best players. Quarterback Cam Newton has repeatedly said he needs to be better and arguably no one needed the bye week more than Newton, who has been battling pain all season. Perhaps a week off will give the Panthers a refreshed Newton for the stretch run.

Defensively, playmaking linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are capable of turning games. Defensive end Charles Johnson has always had a knack for getting to the quarterback and forcing fumbles – his 16 forced fumbles are tied for second in team history. Timely takeaways can change outcomes. The Panthers, who have only generated 17 takeaways after forcing 30 last season, will need their stalwarts to create them.

3. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF TOLBERT: Tolbert's return can help solve Carolina's red zone problems. He has scored 40 career touchdowns and excels in short-yardage situations. As head coach Ron Rivera said, "He's got a nose for it." Tolbert can also be deployed out of the backfield as a sure-handed target who's difficult to bring down.

4. AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF BROWN: Rookie wide receiver Philly Brown's role is expected to increase with the team having waived wide recevier Jason Avant last week. Brown has the speed to stretch the field, and the Panthers need to take their shots to keep defenses honest. The more threatening Brown becomes over the top, the more space becomes available for tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

5. SPECIAL TEAMS BE SPECIAL: Three weeks ago, linebacker Jason Williams said it was about time the special teams influenced a game in Carolina's favor. A blocked kick, big return, forced fumble – something.

"Coach Rivera always says that special teams should be responsible for four wins each year," Williams said. "It's about time for us to step up and change the game. It's not like we've let the team down. We've been real consistent, but we haven't had a big flash."

The Panthers need that big flash to come before it's too late.

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