CHARLOTTE – At 7-3, the Panthers have reason to feel good about themselves during the bye week. They're riding a three-game win streak and coming off one of their most complete performances of the season.
Let's take a look at where things stand for Carolina as they brace for the stretch run of the 2017 season.
OFFENSE THROUGH 10 GAMES
What's worked: There has been inconsistency, and that was expected with quarterback Cam Newton coming off shoulder surgery. But Newton appears to be hitting his stride at the right time. He's been extremely productive as a runner (346 of his 436 yards have come in the last five games), and he's coming off a Monday night performance in which he tossed a season-high four touchdown passes. We're beginning to see the 2015 NFL MVP return to that dominant form.
First-round pick Christian McCaffrey has been as good as advertised as a pass catcher, leading the team with 57 receptions for 433 yards. And he's shown signs that he's getting more comfortable in the run game, posting 4.45 yards per carry in the past two games.
The decision to trade wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was a controversial one, but it has opened things up for both the passing and running game. Wide receiver Devin Funchess has flourished since stepping into the "X" role fulltime following Benjamin's departure, racking up 10 catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns in those two games. Rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel's season-ending ankle injury was a tough hit to take, especially since he was just starting to settle in with a more clearly defined role.
What needs improvement: Before the current three-game win streak, the Panthers were really struggling to run the ball effectively - which has always been a staple - and protect Newton, who had been sacked 22 times through seven games. But the offensive line has shown signs of improvement. Carolina allowed just one sack in the last three games (tied for fewest in the NFL), and the Panthers' 595 rushing yards are the most in that span.
Protecting the football is another priority item. The Panthers have been turnover-free in just three games this season, and their minus-7 turnover margin ranks 28th in the NFL.
Reinforcements on the way? Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen has been sidelined since Week 2 with a broken foot, but he's targeting a return to action following the bye. Olsen brings so much to the table, and his return will be a tremendous boost. Speedy wide receiver Damiere Byrd is another one scheduled to come off the injured reserve list in the near future.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil has battled a neck injury throughout the year, and he's been working tirelessly to get back on the field. Backup center Tyler Larsen has proven he can do the job, but the Panthers would love to see Kalil and his veteran savvy return to the lineup.
DEFENSE THROUGH 10 GAMES
What's worked: When you're No. 1 in total defense at this point in the season, a lot has worked.
Every week the Panthers say it starts with defending the run, and Carolina has been excellent in that area, allowing just 80.6 yards per game – second fewest in the league. They've yet to allow a 100-yard rusher.
From there, the Panthers are getting after the quarterback and dialing up pressure from all angles. The 29 sacks they've compiled rank second overall. Combine that with the 35.5 percent conversion rate for opponents on third down, and you've got a recipe for defensive success that has carried the team for most of the season.
What needs improvement: Takeaways, takeaways, takeaways. Carolina has produced nine of them. Only five teams have produced fewer.
But maybe the second half of the year will be a different story. In the last three games, the Panthers have forced five turnovers, including three against the Buccaneers in Week 8.
Turnovers are often the difference in games, and it could prove to be the difference in Carolina's season.