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Bests and worsts at Panthers’ halfway point

Going to extremes at the midpoint of the NFL season with the 5-3 Panthers:

Best call by unsung coach: On fourth-and-1 Sunday from the Atlanta 14, the Panthers ran a beautiful play-action pass and Cam Newton threw to a wide-open Greg Olsen for a touchdown. Little-known fact – that call actually was suggested by tight ends coach Pete Hoener, according to offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

Biggest surprise (defense): Safety Mike Mitchell has tied for the team lead with three interceptions and has added a needed element of physicality.

Biggest surprise (offense): Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. has two touchdowns of 40-plus yards and has made several tough catches in traffic, which is supposed to be his weakness. Ginn and Mitchell were key offseason pickups by new general manager Dave Gettleman. Better yet, both came cheaply.

Worst turnover: DeAngelo Williams’ fumble inside the 10 against Seattle cost the Panthers a chance to beat one of the NFL’s premier teams in the season opener. Williams has rebounded nicely, though, and is on pace for a 1,000-yard season.

Best bounce: How did Brandon LaFell ever recover that fumble against Atlanta? No way that ball bounces to him in 2011 or 2012.

Best trend: “Riverboat” Ron Rivera changed his stripes after the 0-2 start and now seems to go for a fourth-and-1 in every game. The Panthers are 5-for-7 on fourth downs this season, and the confidence instilled by Rivera’s gambling has permeated the franchise. Even when the offense inevitably doesn’t convert on one of these fourth downs, this is just one positive sign of Rivera’s obvious growth as a coach. It’s no coincidence that three of the best NFL coaches working right now go for it on fourth down with regularity – Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh.

Worst loss: Buffalo, 24-23 in Week 2. The Bills (3-6) just aren’t very good – they are last in the AFC East. To allow them to go 80 yards with no timeouts and a rookie quarterback was really bad even for a banged-up Panthers defense. Plus, Rivera could have put the game away by simply going for a fourth-and-1 before any of that happened.

First-half most valuable player (offense): Newton, who is playing the best he ever has and has the stats to back it up. Newton’s leadership skills also have taken a leap. He no longer is the occasionally pouty player he was during his first two seasons and seems to be taking very seriously the job of being one of the team’s captains.

First-half MVP (defense): Linebacker Luke Kuechly doesn’t have as many tackles this season as teams try to account for him more, but he has three interceptions and has shown an uncanny knack for the ball. If he doesn’t make the Pro Bowl, it will be a surprise (and a robbery).

First-half MVP (special teams): Graham Gano. You can’t do any better than 36-for-36 on kicks – Gano has made all 24 of his extra-point attempts and all 12 of his field-goal attempts (including four from 50-plus). And 81.4percent of his kickoffs have gone for touchbacks.

Worst penalty: Kuechly’s pass-interference call against Buffalo. Even the best blow it sometimes, and Kuechly did there on a pass that likely was going to be intercepted no matter what.

Best stat Part 1: Nothing matters more than points in the NFL, and the Panthers are No.2 in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing only 13.2 per game. Only 9-0 Kansas City has done better, although the offenses the Panthers are about to play are very high-powered.

Best stat Part 2: The Panthers’ defense has allowed three points in the first quarter – total!. The offense also gave up a first-quarter safety, but overall the Panthers have outscored teams 38-5 in the first quarter and 58-28 in the second. That’s why it seems like they almost always are playing with a lead.

Worst nightmare scenario: The Panthers don’t win another game until Dec.1 vs. Tampa Bay. Their confidence sags. Newton goes south. Major injuries strike. They end up 7-9. Rivera and his staff get fired. Everyone has to start over.

Best way to get to 10-6: I am sticking with my preseason prediction for the Panthers (10-6). It still is possible, although it will be difficult. To get to 10 wins – which I think will put the Panthers in the playoffs for the first time since 2008 – the simplest way would be to go 5-3 in the second half like this:

1. Beat Atlanta and Tampa Bay one more time each.

2. Split with New Orleans.

3. Go 2-2 in these difficult games: at San Francisco, New England, New York Jets and at Miami.