MVP: Running back DeAngelo Williams picked up where he left off last season. He's on pace for another 1,500-yard season, once again showing great vision, toughness and explosiveness. This year, however, he has struggled at times with ball security.
ROOKIE IMPACT: With all 11 starters back, the Panthers haven't called upon rookies much. Running back Mike Goodson flashed in the preseason but has played sparingly during the regular season. He has four rushes and one pass reception for a combined 5 yards. Tyrell Sutton is a natural tailback but showed promise running, catching and blocking as a fullback against the Saints.
BEST PLAY: Williams broke free for a 66-yard touchdown run against New Orleans to give Carolina an early lead. It was the team's longest scoring play of the first half and the second-longest gain, trailing Williams' 77-yard, non-scoring run against Arizona a week earlier.
WORST PLAY: There are plenty to choose from. The Panthers have had two interceptions and two fumbles returned for touchdowns. But the worst of the worst came when Jake Delhomme overthrew an open Steve Smith and was intercepted by safety Jairus Byrd late in the third quarter against Buffalo. Byrd returned the ball to the Carolina 27 and set up the Bills' clinching touchdown in arguably the Panthers' worst loss of the season.
BEST TREND: Carolina has re-established its running game during the past month. After starting the season slowly, the Panthers have risen to third in the NFL in rushing and are averaging 208.7 yards per game on the ground over the past four weeks.
WORST TREND: The passing game continues to struggle; wide receivers have one touchdown reception. Despite having no interceptions the past two games, Delhomme leads the league with 13 and ranks 29th in passing efficiency. At a time when 20 quarterbacks are completing more than 60 percent of their passes, Delhomme's rate is 58.8 percent.
LOOKING AHEAD: There is nothing wrong with the Panthers being a run-first team, but if they don't become more efficient passing when they need to, the season isn't going to get better. They must get Steve Smith more involved in the offense, or they risk wasting one of the NFL's top game-breakers.
- Charles Chandler
MVP: This is tricky, because the obvious choice - weakside linebacker Thomas Davis - is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. But there is no doubt Davis was the defense's best player until getting injured late in Sunday's loss to New Orleans. His range and physicality made him one of the NFL's best linebackers in the season's first half.
ROOKIE IMPACT: Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was a seventh-round draft choice out of South Carolina, and he quickly impressed Panthers coaches with his savvy and toughness (he's the team's smallest player, at 5-foot-8, 186 pounds). He's a regular on the Panthers' nickel defensive package and returns punts. It looks like an above-average draft for the defense: End Everette Brown and safety Sherrod Martin both have been solid.
BEST PLAY: When defensive end Julius Peppers intercepted Arizona's Kurt Warner in the second quarter of Carolina's 34-21 victory, it put all of Peppers' considerable skills on display. He survived a cut block by the Cardinals' Mike Gandy, then snatched Warner's pass and returned it 13 yards for a touchdown.
WORST PLAY: The Panthers had spent the first half of the New Orleans game keeping the Saints' potent offense at bay. Then, what appeared to be a short slant route run by New Orleans receiver Devery Henderson turned into a 63-yard gain. The Saints scored on their next play, and the Panthers never recovered.
BEST TREND: The Panthers are close to fully figuring out new defensive coordinator Ron Meeks' system and apparently have improved the run defense that plagued them earlier in the season. The addition of tackles Hollis Thomas and Tank Tyler made Carolina's interior line a much tougher place for running backs.
WORST TREND: Injuries. Three starters - Davis and tackles Maake Kemoeatu (achilles) and Louis Leonard (ankle) - are out for the season. Two more - safties Chris Harris (knee) and Charles Godfrey (ankle) - have missed significant time (Godfrey is still out). That kind of attrition tests the depth of even the best defense.
LOOKING AHEAD: How well Meeks can piece together his injury-depleted unit will tell the defense's story the rest of the season. Martin has filled in well for Godfrey, and whomever replaces Davis - Landon Johnson, James Anderson or Dan Connor - has a huge task ahead of him. And without Davis, more falls on the defense's two most important players, Peppers and middle linebacker Jon Beason.
- David Scott
THE GOOD: Kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd boots the ball into the end zone a league-leading 72.7 percent of the time. Long-snapper J.J. Jansen has proven as reliable as veteran Jason Kyle, the player he replaced.
THE BAD: Before the season was five games old, Carolina had a punt return for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, a blocked punt and a blocked field goal. John Kasay uncharacteristically missed two field goals in a loss to Buffalo. The kickoff coverage team allows a league-high 30.7 yards per return, despite Lloyd's 24 kicks into the end zone.
LOOKING AHEAD: Special-teams play has stabilized in the past two games, but the damage inflicted early in the season was immense. For a while, there was a catastrophic breakdown in the special teams each game. Those must stop if the Panthers are to make any kind of second-half playoff run.
- David Scott