Carolina Panthers

Sky-is-falling crowd in Carolinas ignores 2 key facts about Panthers and NFC South.

The Carolina Panthers’ two-game losing skid brought the latest round of “fire Mike Shula” rants from a portion of the public hoping to push the offensive coordinator out the Morehead Street gate for good.

And while the Panthers’ offense has its flaws, the sky-is-falling-on-uptown-Charlotte mentality ignores two facts: No one is running away with the NFC South, and the division race is about to begin in earnest.

The Panthers (4-3) start a two-game stretch against division opponents Sunday at Tampa Bay (2-4), followed by a Nov. 5 home game against Atlanta (3-3). The Saints, who beat the Panthers 34-13 in Week 3, lead the South at 4-2.

The Falcons’ trip to Charlotte next week will be their first division game. Last season’s Super Bowl losers close the schedule with five division contests in their final six games, including a Week 17 date against Carolina.

Count Panthers coach Ron Rivera among those who think it will go down to those final regular-season games on New Year’s Eve.

“If nobody separates themselves in the next four weeks, it could come down to Weeks 15, 16 and 17 when we’ll all play each other again,” Rivera said. “So it could be pretty exciting. And quite honestly, I kind of envision that happening to this division.”

This is a critical point for the Panthers, who are 1-6 in their last seven division games. If they lose to Tampa Bay and Atlanta, they’d be below .500 overall and 0-3 in the division with a lot of ground to make up.

“Listen, we’re 4-3, we’re still in the hunt and we’ve got a lot of football left. So nobody on this team is getting down on anybody,” Panthers rookie running back Christian McCaffrey said. “We’re staying positive and we’re controlling what we can control.”

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis says it’s nice knowing there’s not an undefeated team in the South (or any division) “totally dominating and you’re playing catch-up.”

But Davis shot down any mention of 2014, when the Panthers won the division and sneaked into the playoffs with a 7-8-1 record.

“I don’t want to think nothing about 2014. We lost a whole bunch of games in a row,” Davis said. “I ain’t trying to relive that at all.”

Quarterback Cam Newton said the Panthers have to play better “complementary football,” with the offense extending drives to give the defense a break, the defense doing its part and special teams helping swing field position.

Davis said the ’14 season – which ended with a four-game win streak – was a testament to the team’s resiliency. But he’s not interested in following that formula again.

“We fought down to the end and we were able to make it to the playoffs and win a playoff game that year. But that’s not a situation we want to be in as a football team,” Davis said. “We want to control our own destiny.”

With the midway point approaching, the Observer takes a closer look at the NFC South teams and who might be primed for a second-half run.

New Orleans Saints (4-2)

Strengths: After opening the season 0-2, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are on a hot streak with four consecutive victories. Former Panther Ted Ginn Jr. has hit his stride, too, with 353 yards on 22 catches with two touchdowns, good for the second-most receiving yards on the team behind Michael Thomas, who has been hindered with a knee issue but is expected to play this week. Also back is Willie Snead, who missed time with both a suspension and a hamstring injury, giving Brees more weapons.

Weaknesses: New Orleans is still a little wobbly on defense. They rank No. 21 against the pass and teams have scored 15 passing touchdowns against them.

Key injuries: Thomas’ knee.

Winning percentage of remaining schedule: .500.

Outlook: New Orleans will face three physical defenses in its next four games, so players nursing injuries will be put to the test. The team ebbs and flows with Brees, who at 38 years old is playing solid football with 1,652 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Brees has also only taken five sacks, so any team that wants an edge on New Orleans must figure out a way to pressure him.

Carolina Panthers (4-3)

Strengths: The defense under first-year coordinator Steve Wilks has been outstanding, ranked third in the NFL at 261.9 yards allowed per game. With rookie RB Christian McCaffrey heavily involved, QB Cam Newton is completing passes at a higher rate than at any point in his career.

Weaknesses: The defense’s inability to take the ball away (one interception, four takeaways) has created too many long fields for the offense. The offensive line’s run blocking has been virtually nonexistent of late, and the pass protection hasn’t been much better. The Panthers need more big plays in all three phases.

Key injuries: TE Greg Olsen (broken foot) can start practicing next week and could be back for the Nov. 26 game vs. the Jets. C Ryan Kalil has missed most of the season with a neck injury he aggravated last week at Chicago. The two Pro Bowlers have been missed.

Winning percentage of remaining schedule: .517.

Outlook: With Luke Kuechly back and Julius Peppers turning back the clock, the Panthers own a playoff-caliber defense. But they’ll go only as far as Newton can take them. If the line can do a better job protecting him and Shula gets more creative (neither a given), Newton has enough playmakers to succeed. Getting Olsen back would be a big boost for the stretch run.

Atlanta Falcons (3-3)

Strengths: If anyone needed a reminder of Julio Jones’ brilliance, he provided it last week by snatching a TD pass away from Patriots CB Malcolm Butler to end a 90-minute scoreless drought for Atlanta. The Falcons still have the most explosive 1-2 backfield punch in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and the young defense is fast and athletic.

Weaknesses: Much like Mike Shula in Charlotte, Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has come under early fire. Atlanta has fallen from No. 1 in points and No. 2 in yards under Kyle Shanahan during their Super Bowl season, to No. 16 and No. 7. QB Matt Ryan has been ineffective on deep throws and in the red zone. And the defense has not been taking the ball away (sound familiar?).

Key injuries: DT Jack Crawford (biceps) was placed on IR at the beginning of October. Rookie LB Duke Riley had surgery this past week to repair a meniscus tear. DE Courtney Upshaw (ankle) and edge rusher Vic Beasley (hamstring) also have missed time.

Winning percentage of remaining schedule: .547.

Outlook: Ryan has thrown six interceptions in six games after finishing with seven all of last season. But four of those picks came on passes that bounced off receivers’ hands. Ryan will be fine, but Sarkisian has to get Freeman and Coleman more involved. One thing working in the Falcons’ favor as far as potential tiebreakers: Their three losses have come vs. AFC teams.

Tampa Bay Bucs (2-4)

Strengths: Jameis Winston and the Tampa Bay offense rank first in the league in passing offense with 1,874 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions (they are fourth in the league in passing touchdowns). Led by Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson and Cameron Brate, Winston has both vertical and underneath threats to keep opposing defenses’ hands full.

Weaknesses: Tampa Bay is living by the pass, but also dying by it. The Buccaneers are No. 30 in the league in passing defense and the yardage by opposing quarterbacks has increased nearly every week, most recently with Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor passing for 378 yards against the Bucs’ secondary.

Key injuries: Grimes has been dealing with a shoulder injury. Josh Robinson and Robert McClain, two depth pieces at cornerback, are still in the concussion protocol.

Winning percentage of remaining schedule: .554.

Outlook: Tampa Bay can be dangerous, especially in the fourth quarter, and especially when playing from behind. Almost 40 percent of the Bucs’ passing yards have come in the fourth quarter, and the team has enough success in the passing game to be able to make things stressful when down by that time. If Tampa can tighten up its own secondary, it can right the ship and make a run.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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