Perfect Panthers going for 3rd straight NFC South title
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers have their sights on more than just a three-peat as NFC South champions at the midway point of the season.
They want home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
With an 8-0 record and a two-game lead on the rest of the conference, they appear positioned to do just that.
That is why Carolina's 37-29 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday - the team's 12th consecutive regular-season victory - was so huge.
Arizona, Minnesota and Green Bay are all 6-2, although the Panthers own the tiebreaker against the Packers.
''I think it goes without saying we would rather play in Charlotte in January than in Green Bay,'' Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said.
The Panthers have reached this point behind the improved play of dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton, the league's top-ranked rushing attack and an opportunistic defense loaded with playmakers.
Newton has battled back from an injury-filled season in 2014 and has thrown and rushed for a touchdown in five different games this season.
Behind Newton and Jonathan Stewart the Panthers average more than 142 yards rushing per game and have run for at least 100 yards in 19 consecutive games.
Carolina's defense is best known for standout linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, but cornerback Josh Norman and defensive tackle Kawann Short captured NFC Player of the Month awards for September and October respectively.
Coach Ron Rivera is happy with his team, but thinks it can be even better.
''I opened my meeting to the guys talking about paying attention to the details, about being careful, that winning does mask some of your warts,'' Rivera said Monday. ''And we have to stress those with our players.''
Some things to know about the NFC South going into the second half of the regular season:
WAITING IN THE WINGS: The Panthers' defense has been pretty good this season, but they're about to get even better. Charles Johnson, the team's top pass rusher, is eligible to return from short-term IR against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Johnson has been bothered by a hamstring injury, but has had more than two months to heal. Johnson will be paired opposite veteran Jared Allen, the NFL's active leader in sacks when he returns. There's also second-year defensive end Kony Ealy, who has elevated his game in recent weeks.
CLIPPED WINGS: The Falcons opened the season a surprising 5-0 under first-year coach Dan Quinn, but have dropped three of their past four, including the past two to division cellar dwellers Tampa Bay and San Francisco. Running back Davonta Freeman has been a huge find for the Falcons. He has 721 yards rushing, second only to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. But quarterback Matt Ryan has struggled of late and the Falcons haven't scored more than 21 points in any of their past four games.
JUST A BREES: The Saints seem to have their offense moving in high gear. Drew Brees has thrown for more yards than any quarterback in the NFC, and New Orleans is first in the league in offense. But the Saints lost last week at home to the Tennessee Titans 34-28, ending a three-game winning streak. Defense continues to be an issue for the Saints, who've allowed 110 points in their past three games.
LAST-PLACE BUCS: Jameis Winston's development has been the most encouraging aspect of the first half for the Buccaneers. Since throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble during a loss to the Panthers in Week 4, the No. 1 overall pick in the draft has thrown for four touchdowns and no interceptions while guiding the Bucs to a 2-2 record over the past four games. Coaches and teammates rave about his work ethic and say he's gradually assumed a larger leadership role. It's difficult to imagine the team escaping the division cellar, though, without a stark turnaround on defense. While the group ranks 11th in fewest yards allowed, opponents are averaging nearly 29 points per game and have scored on 32 of 33 trips inside the Bucs' 20.
WHAT'S NEXT: The Panthers and Falcons will play each other twice late in the season (Dec. 13 and 27) in games that could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the division. Atlanta may need to sweep the series and get some outside help to catch Carolina. The Panthers' remaining schedule isn't daunting. In fact, the Falcons and Giants are the only two teams with winning records.
Predicted Order of Finish: Panthers, Falcons, Saints, Buccaneers.
AP Sports Writers Brett Martel in New Orleans, Louisiana, Charles Odum in Atlanta, Georgia and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida contributed to this report.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL