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The Carolina Panthers’ turnaround by the numbers

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Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers (1) quarterback Cam Newton congratulates (34) running back DeAngelo Williams following his rushing touchdown vs the San Francisco 49ers during second quarter action at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, CA. on Sunday, November 10, 2013. The Panthers defeated the 49ers 10-9.

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After an ugly, turnover-filled loss at Arizona in Week 5, the Carolina Panthers flew home to Charlotte with a 1-3 record that raised questions about whether a slow start would doom them again.

But the Panthers have flipped the script since the 22-6 loss in Glendale, Ariz., rattling off five wins in a row, joining the ranks of the NFL’s relevant and earning a nickname for their head coach.

Much has been made of the suddenly adventurous nature of Riverboat Ron Rivera, who left his conservative tendencies behind in Buffalo in Week 2 and started going for fourth downs like his job depended on it.

But the Panthers’ success on fourth downs – they’ve converted 5 of 7 fourth-down plays – is but one of several key statistics that help explain the Panthers’ turnaround. Carolina was 2-7 through nine games last season, and would fall to 2-8 before winning five of their last six in what amounted to meaningless games.

But the Panthers (6-3) have put themselves to play in meaningful games over the season’s final two months this season. A look at five stats that have played a part in the Panthers’ success (statistics are through nine games in 2012 and 2013):

Touchdowns allowed (2012: 20; 2013: 9): It took four games into the 2012 season for the Panthers to figure out Luke Kuechly was better suited in the middle of the linebacking corps than on the weakside. His move boosted the defense, but there was still dominance lacking in the middle of the defensive line. With Kuechly back as the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, the additions of Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the middle plus Charles Johnson continuing his high production at defensive end, the Panthers have given up 11 fewer touchdowns this season. Carolina has allowed the second-fewest points per game (12.9) in the NFL this season and averages one touchdown allowed per game, including just two rushing touchdowns allowed all year.

Time of possession (2012: 27:45; 2013: 33:48): While the Panthers’ defense has emerged as one of the league’s top units, the offense has been able to keep it more rested than it did last season. Carolina’s offense is holding the ball more than six minutes per game longer than it did last season, and a lot of that has to do with a balanced attack. Carolina has just six more passing plays than it does rushing plays this season. Last year, that gap was 66 plays.

Offensive plays of 20 yards or more (2012: 40; 2013: 25): The Panthers had one of the league’s most explosive offenses under former coordinator Rob Chudzinski, but rank tied for last this year in so-called “big chunk plays.” Mike Shula, who replaced Chudzinski, said he wants to see more quick-strike plays. But the fact is, the Panthers have been taking fewer chances downfield in the passing game. The more methodical approach has had its advantages. Cam Newton’s interceptions (8) are down slightly from his total (10) at this point a year ago. The running backs are happier because they’re getting the ball more, and the Panthers are controlling games and dictating tempo (see time of possession above) by keeping opposing offenses on the sideline for long stretches.

The opponents (2012: 88-56; 2013: 35-49): You play who’s on your schedule without prejudice, but last year’s schedule through nine games was decidedly tougher than this year’s for Carolina. Entering the season, Carolina had the toughest schedule in the league, but that’s why games aren’t played on paper. The Panthers’ first nine opponents last year finished with a combined .611 record compared to this year’s .417 record. Carolina didn’t play a team that finished worse than 7-9 in that span last year while this year’s Panthers have played five teams with three or fewer wins.

Third-down efficiency (2012: 33.3 percent; 2013: 46.2): While the “Riverboat Ron” phenomenon has provided a shot of confidence to the offensive players and helped energize the Panthers’ fan base, Carolina’s third-down offense has been equally as impressive. Newton ranks behind only Peyton Manning and Drew Brees as a third-down passer with a 106 passer rating, a completion percentage of 71.9 and 9.94 yards per pass attempt. Carolina’s 46.2 percent conversion rate this season is third-best in the NFL.

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