It seems like a long time ago the Carolina Panthers were 0-2 and Ron Rivera again was fielding questions about his future as their coach.
Since the last-second loss at Buffalo, Rivera has dramatically changed his thinking on fourth-down calls and the Panthers have changed their fortunes.
Behind a balanced offense led by a more complete Cam Newton at quarterback, and a top-three defense, the Panthers (5-3) have won five of six to climb within a game of first place in the NFC South.
The sledding gets considerably tougher in the second half of the season, beginning the next two weeks at San Francisco and at home for a Monday night matchup with New England.
But for the first time since 2008, the Panthers have put themselves in the playoff conversation at the seasons halfway point.
B+ QUARTERBACK : Cam Newton has taken his game to another level in his third season in terms of reading coverages and going through his route progressions. Newton is on pace to pass for 3,600 yards a little off his totals from his record-setting first two seasons. But hes becoming a more complete quarterback who is among the best at breaking down defenses with his arm and legs.
B- RUNNING BACKS : Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has stuck with his pledge to return to a more traditional rushing attack. The Panthers, the leagues eighth-best rushing team, still pick their spots for the zone-read. The backs are averaging 4.0 yards a carry, and seemed to get a boost when Jonathan Stewart returned last week. The big play is the only thing thats been missing: The longest run is a 27-yarder from DeAngelo Williams.
B RECEIVERS : The Panthers have received more than they expected from Ted Ginn Jr., a speed receiver who was relegated to a return role in San Francisco. Ginns presence as a deep threat has helped create space underneath for Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and tight end Greg Olsen. Smiths 10.8 yards-per-catch average is nearly 4 yards off his career average. Smith and LaFell had costly drops in the Arizona loss.
C+ OFFENSIVE LINE : This group has withstood a slew of injuries at guard, prompting the Panthers to re-sign veterans Travelle Wharton and Geoff Hangartner. Center Ryan Kalil has played well after missing most of last season following foot surgery, while tackles Jordan Gross and Byron Bell have rebounded after struggling in pass protection early in the season.
B+ DEFENSIVE LINE : Rookie defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short have exceeded expectations, and should benefit from the return of Dwan Edwards to a deep interior rotation that includes veteran Colin Cole. Ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson are on a pace similar pace to last season, when they combined for 23 1/2 sacks.
A LINEBACKERS : Two years removed from his third ACL surgery, Thomas Davis is in the midst of his best season. Davis leads the team with 40 solo tackles, and has been effective in blitz (third on the team with three sacks) and coverage (one interception) packages. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechlys 64 total tackles are first on the team, and hes tied with free safety Mike Mitchell for team honors with three INTs.
B DEFENSIVE BACKS : Dave Gettlemans acquisition of Mitchell has allowed the Panthers to overcome Charles Godfreys season-ending Achilles injury. Mitchell and strong safety Quintin Mikell, another free-agent pickup, add a veteran presence in the back. Cornerbacks Captain Munnerlyn and Drayton Florence have scored on INT returns, while undrafted rookies Melvin White and Robert Lester have made big impacts.
A SPECIAL TEAMS : Graham Gano is one of four kickers who have yet to miss a field goal (min. 10 attempts). Gano booted a 55-yarder vs. Atlanta, and he leads the league with a 77.8 touchback percentage on his kickoffs. Brad Nortman is punting more consistently than he did as a rookie. The coverage teams have been solid, while Ginn is still looking for his first return for a touchdown.
B COACHING : A deflating loss at Buffalo in Week 2 caused Ron Rivera to re-think his philosophy on fourth-and-short situations. The result has been Riverboat Ron, whose go-for-it mentality has boosted his players confidence and fired up the fan base. The Panthers have handled a series of below-average opponents, but Rivera likely will have to prove he can win a couple of close games if the Panthers are to make the playoffs.