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Next up: Conquering the third quarter

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CHARLOTTE – Halftimes in the NFL last just 12 minutes, a short window for fans aiming to take care of business in the concourse quickly enough to catch the start of the second half.

But so far this season at Panthers games home and away, fans haven’t really missed much if they’ve missed the first series of the third quarter.

“That’s something we’ll assess – ways we can be better in the third quarter,” left tackle Chris Clark said. “But you want to put your best foot forward every quarter.”

Technically it only matters whether you score more points over the course of four quarters – as Carolina has done in six of eight games - but the Panthers have had some “odd” patterns as their season enters the figurative third quarter with Game 9 of 16 Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

They’ve been really good in the “even” quarters, putting up 11.0 points on average in the second quarter and 10.1 points on average in the fourth quarter – good for sixth-most to open and third-most to close.

They’ve also improved in the first quarter of late, and it has paid dividends. Through their first six games the Panthers averaged just 2.8 points in the first quarter – fewer than all but two NFL teams – and that added up to falling behind in all three of their road games, two of which resulted in losses.

But over the two-game homestand that Carolina just wrapped up, the Panthers came out of the gates strong by totaling 21 first-quarter points. That matched the Saints for the best first-quarter output for Weeks 8-9 and powered the Panthers to victories over the Ravens and Buccaneers.

Fast second-half starts, however, continue to elude Carolina. The Panthers have mustered just 13 points in the third quarter all season, a 1.6-point average that ranks next-to-last in the league.

Those lulls made it difficult to rally in road losses to Atlanta and Washington (though Carolina did rally in the fourth quarter before falling short), and they made last week’s victory over Tampa Bay and a Week 5 triumph over the New York Giants a little more nail-biting than they should have been.

Every time the Panthers have won the coin toss this year (and every time since 2015 in fact), head coach Ron Rivera has opted to defer his choice to the second half, meaning Carolina receives the kickoff to start the second half.

The idea, of course, is to know you’ll have at least the same and possibly one more possession than your opponent over the third and fourth quarters – and to ideally take control or maintain it with a productive opening drive.

The offense hasn’t yet accomplished that. The Panthers have won the toss five times and gotten the ball to start the second half, but those five drives have netted zero points and six total first downs.

The three times the opposition got the ball to start the second half, Carolina’s defense has pitched a shutout, yielding no points and just four first downs. The three resulting drives for Carolina’s offense have produced a single field goal – in a loss at Washington.

The third-quarter issues haven’t had a devastating impact to date. The Panthers have lost just two games so far, and in both cases some first-half struggles put Carolina in a hole they might not have dug out of even with a good third quarter.

But if the pattern continues, it’s inevitable that coming out slow in the second half will have consequences, just as slow first-half starts did. The Panthers have adjusted and gotten off to better first-half starts the last couple of weeks; perhaps this is the week they start doing the same out of halftime.

If they do, there might be no stopping them.

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