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Strickly Panthers: Rewind would be kind

As the Panthers prepared to kick off the second half of their season against the Tennessee Titans, head coach Ron Rivera told his team that it was really like kicking off the first half of the season.

"If you think about it, we've probably gone through what equals up to going through OTAs, mini-camps, training camp and preseason," Rivera said at the time. "Now we have an opportunity to start fresh and get going."
If only that was the case.

"If we had just had a few more weeks, who knows?' " Rivera said Wednesday, with the season finale at the New Orleans Saints looming. "I wish we had a few more just to see, just to see if we've reached that point where we've matured enough."

The Panthers certainly have learned a lot since the Titans game, which actually would have been a fitting season opener for such a young team with a rookie quarterback at the helm. The Panthers lost 30-3, the only game all season that Carolina didn't lead at some point.

If that had been the season opener, the 6-9 Panthers would instead be 4-3 – tied for second place in the NFC South – heading into a crucial clash with the 7-0 Saints on Sunday.

"This team is a different team than the Week 1 team, and that's evident on film, but we can't get that back," quarterback Cam Newton said. "You can't press rewind in life and you sure can't press fast-forward, so you've got to live for the present."

But what if you could press rewind? What if the second half of the season were the actually the first half?

What valuable lessons would the Panthers have been taking into the second half of the season with them, lessons that they will in reality take with them into next season?

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LESSON ONE: HOW TO FINISH GAMES

After the inexplicable, lopsided loss to the Titans, the Panthers followed with a painful loss at Detroit, building a 24-7 lead only to crumble in a 49-35 loss.

But since then – with some stops and starts – they've gotten much better at closing out opponents.

The next week at Indianapolis, the Colts made it interesting, but the defense came up with a pair of interceptions in the final five minutes to secure a 27-19 triumph.

The Panthers didn't mess around when they got a big lead early at Tampa Bay the next week, but the growing pains weren't over, with a 23-7 halftime lead against Atlanta the next week melting away in a 31-23 loss.

Carolina rebounded, however, to build a 21-0 lead at halftime against Houston the next week, then staved off a similar third-quarter rally to win 28-13. The Panthers then played their most complete game last week, never letting off the gas in a 48-16 victory over the Buccaneers.

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LESSON TWO: HOW TO WIN ON THE ROAD

By the time the Panthers claimed their first road victory of the season, it only improved them to 3-8 overall, 1-4 on the road.

But that victory, at Indianapolis, jumpstarted a three-game road winning streak that they'll carry with them to New Orleans. In the NFC, only the Saints can currently match that streak of success.

The Panthers didn't away from home at all in 2010, and they lost their first four of 2011 - at Arizona, Chicago, Atlanta and Detroit – even though they all looked like potential victories.

Now that they've figured it out, punctuated by their recent road victory against the AFC South champion Texans, wouldn't they love another shot at those first four road games?

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LESSON THREE: HOW TO PROTECT THE BALL

Newton has stressed the importance of not turning over the ball with his words throughout his rookie season, but only recently has he figured out how to match his actions with his words.

Over the Panthers' first 10 games, Newton turned the ball over 16 times, but over the last five games, he's turned it over just twice. Carolina has won all but one of those five games.

Here's one of the season's simplest but most significant statistics: When Newton turns the ball over, the Panthers are 0-9. When Newton doesn't turn the ball over, the Panthers are 6-0.

Given his recent trend toward taking care of the ball, a second shot at the first half of the season sure would be interesting to watch.

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LESSON FOUR: HOW TO WORK THE SYSTEM

Newton's progress with ball security and the team's improved ability to finish games and win on the road all can be attributed in no small part to the time the team has now had in the first-year coaching staff's system.

Even with a remarkable number of injuries, the defense has improved dramatically as it has gained some semblance of continuity. The special teams units have solidified in a similar way, and an offense that's been good since the beginning has only gotten better.

That all would bode well if the Panthers could somehow replay the first half of the season. More importantly, it bodes well for the first half of next season.

"Just having this season was huge. Forget about mini-camps and all that stuff – that's just a bonus," center Ryan Kalil said. "There are areas where we can still improve, which is the exciting part about it. I'm sure we'll do a good job in the draft and fill some other spots where needed.

"It's exciting looking forward, but we've got one more game."

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