Can Cam Newton pass the Panthers into the playoffs? Will the Giants rally to be there, too?
Halfway through the NFL season, how is your team doing? USA TODAY Sports' Jim Corbett takes a midseason look at the NFC.
MIDSEASON GRADES: AFC
Remaining schedule: Things don't get any easier with games against the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers.
What has gone well: Up until his four-interception implosion against the Arizona Cardinals, Matt Ryan was the league's third-rated passer with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions despite missing his top two receivers. But fifth-year Harry Douglas has emerged as a complete receiver -- his 35 receptions are only four off his career high.
What has gone wrong: Injuries have wiped out the Falcons from the start. They still have trouble covering tight ends with their linebackers. Other than defensive end Osi Umenyiora, there hasn't been much of a pass rush.
Grade: This was a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations until battered by injuries. Steven Jackson's return to health should help and take the heat off Ryan. D
Remaining schedule: After their Nov. 3 bye, the Cardinals have a chance to build momentum with back-to-back games against the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars. Then it gets tougher, facing the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles and their final games against NFC West powers Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers.
What has gone well: Safety Tyrann Mathieu has been a winning draft gamble, getting more time in the base defense. Patrick Peterson continues to blossom into one of the best cornerbacks, with three interceptions. Larry Fitzgerald remains superb with five touchdown catches.
What has gone wrong: The Carson Palmer experiment hasn't worked. Palmer has been sacked 23 times and thrown 14 interceptions vs. 10 touchdowns. It might be time to see if sixth-year Drew Stanton can provide a spark. The offensive line continues to drag down this team.
Grade: The Cardinals continue to waste the prime of Fitzgerald, their franchise player, because they have failed to secure a worthy successor to quarterback Kurt Warner, who led them to a Super Bowl after the 2008 season. C
Remaining schedule: The Panthers have won three in a row. But they face an uphill second half loaded with tough November tests at San Francisco and home against the New England Patriots, followed by two December games within a three-week span against the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints.
What has gone well: Cam Newton's dynamic play is why Carolina is on a three-game winning streak and has a shot to return to the postseason for the first time since 2008. Over the streak, Newton has thrown six touchdowns, without an interception and run for two more. Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's unit ranks third overall and has 22 sacks and nine interceptions.
What has gone wrong: Sixth-year tailback Jonathan Stewart has yet to play after offseason surgeries on both ankles. He returned to practice Oct. 22 If he can stay on the field, he is an inside, power running complement to DeAngelo Williams. Newton has been sacked 21 times.
Grade: With the injury-depleted Falcons struggling, the Panthers could emerge a surprise wild-card team. It all depends on Newton continuing this season of growth. First-round pick Star Lotulelei has been a force in the middle who has collapsed the pocket, allowing ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson to bring the heat off the edges. C
Remaining schedule: The next two games could define this season, on the road against the division-leading Green Bay Packers followed by a home game against the Detroit Lions. The Packers loom again in Chicago's regular-season finale. Without quarterback Jay Cutler for the near future, a once promising season could be lost by then.
What has gone right: The team's chronically porous offensive line has finally come together under first-year coach Marc Trestman. Until he suffered a torn groin, Cutler was buying in to Trestman's quick-passing system. Receiver Alshon Jeffrey and tight end Martellus Bennett have provided complementary pieces to go-to receiver Brandon Marshall.
What has gone wrong: Has anyone seen Julius Peppers? The 33-year-old defensive end has been all but invisible (one sack). After the release of Brian Urlacher and a shoulder injury that sidelined linebacker Lance Briggs, Peppers has failed to pick up the playmaking slack. Chicago's once vaunted defense is 27th in yards allowed per game.
Grade: If quarterback Josh McCown can keep the Bears in the mix, that further complicates the decision on what to do with Cutler in the final season of his contract. The Bears will likely use the franchise tag designation to buy them time on what to do long-term. D
Remaining schedule: Their three-game closing stretch will decide whether this is another 8-8 season or an NFC East championship season. That December crossroads begins against Green Bay, followed by a test at the Washington Redskins. Their regular-finale is against Chip Kelly's Philadelphia Eagles.
What has gone well: Other than the costly late-game interception in that 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos this month, Tony Romo has been smart with the football, throwing 18 touchdowns with just five interceptions. The Cowboys are 3-0 in the division and have the best shot to emerge as NFC East champs. Rookie wide receiver Terrance Williams has emerged as a consistent deep threat opposite Dez Bryant.
What has gone wrong: Running back DeMarco Murray can't stay healthy. When he's out, defenses can tee off on Romo, who has been sacked 16 times. The defensive front seven has been weakened by injuries and the release of Jay Ratliff.
Grade: Romo is playing at a high level. Just when it looked like Dez Bryant had grown up, he had his Detroit meltdown. Despite a low ranking, the defense has adapted faster than expected to new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, playing an opportunistic takeaway style. C
Remaining schedule: Detroit has a favorable second-half stretch. The biggest tests coming off the Week 9 bye will be at home Thanksgiving Day against Green Bay, followed by December games at Philadelphia and at home against the Baltimore Ravens.
What has gone well: Reggie Bush has lived up to that four-year, $16 million deal. The dual-threat tailback has given quarterback Matthew Stafford a blitz-beating underneath option when defenses roll a safety to double-cover receiver Calvin Johnson. Stafford is the league's third-ranked fourth-quarter passer with six touchdowns and no interceptions. Johnson leads all receivers with 821 yards and 117.3 per game.
What has gone wrong: Receiver Nate Burleson was playing well until a season-ending broken arm from a Sept. 24 car crash -- he lost control after trying to keep some pizza from sliding off the seat. Cornerback Chris Houston has been benched for rookie Darius Slay. Safety Louis Delmas had to get rid of his MoJo -- his five-year-old, 6-foot alligator. Because wide receiver Kevin Ogletree plans to move in with Delmas, MoJo had to go.
Grade: With the Bears in freefall, the Lions have a shot to contend with the Packers for the NFC North. The defense ranks 25th despite Ndamukong Suh having his most disruptive season. Safety Glover Quin has been a good addition and the Lions have gotten strong play from rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah. C
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Remaining schedule: The NFC North leaders have a favorable closing stretch. The wounded Bears are up next, without Cutler. Of the remaining opponents, only the Bears and Lions have winning records.
What has gone well: For the first time during coach Mike McCarthy's eight-season tenure, the Packers have offensive balance with the emergence of rookie running back Eddie Lacy. The second-round draft pick has carried at least 22 times in each of the last four games, reducing pressure off quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has 15 touchdowns with four interceptions.
What has gone wrong: Injuries have continued to hammer the Packers, who have lost six starters. Receiver Randall Cobb (broken leg in Oct. 13 win against the Baltimore Ravens) could still return. Tight end Jermichael Finley's future remains uncertain following a spinal contusion suffered in Week 7. A Packers secondary known since 2011 for intercepting passes has just three.
Grade: McCarthy has backup players get first-team practice reps. And that approach has paid off as the backups have stepped in and responded, including undrafted slot receiver Jarrett Boykin, who has replaced Cobb. The pass rush didn't disappear along with Clay Matthews, who suffered a broken thumb three games ago. Cornerback Casey Heyward made his debut in Week 8 after sitting out the first seven games with a hamstring injury. B
Remaining schedule: It only gets tougher, starting with the Cowboys up next, followed by the Redskins, Seahawks and Packers. Coach Leslie Frazier could be gone by then.
What has gone well: Jared Allen is playing his typical high-motor football, such as that one-handed sack of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning by reaching around left tackle Will Beatty as if he were a mannequin. The Vikings got their lone win in Week 4 against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- in London. They have yet to win in North America.
What has gone wrong: Underwhelming Christian Ponder opened the door for the Josh Freeman quarterback experiment. The line hasn't been able to open the same holes for reigning league MVP Adrian Peterson. Promising safety Harrison Smith (turf toe injury) could still return. Receiver Greg Jennings has not proven to be the big-play threat he was in Green Bay.
Grade: The second half of the season will be an audition for Freeman to prove he can be the answer to lead the Vikings. Frazier likely won't be back for 2014, the final year of his contract, as it seems more apparent that general manager Rick Spielman will get the chance to hire his own coach. F
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Remaining schedule: The schedule turns decidedly tougher the next few weeks with a Nov. 3 visit to the New York Jets; Nov. 10 home against Dallas; Nov. 17 home against San Francisco and Dec. 2 at Seattle. The games against the 49ers and Seahawks could determine who emerges as the NFC's top seed.
What has gone well: Quarterback Drew Brees regained his swagger with the return of coach Sean Payton from a one-year suspension. The league's third-highest rated passer has fired for 19 touchdowns with five interceptions. In tight end Jimmy Graham and third-down back Darren Sproles, Brees has two of the game's toughest matchups. Players have embraced first-year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's attacking style, with defensive ends Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks and linebacker Junior Galette having breakout seasons.
What has gone wrong: Graham suffered a foot injury and was shut out in the lone loss, 30-27 to the New England Patriots on Oct. 13. Cranking up the running game was Payton's training camp priority. But Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram haven't been able to find a groove for a 25th-ranked rushing game.
Grade: The Saints can play with anyone. Ryan's defense is surrendering 109 fewer yards/game than last year's historically awful edition that allowed an NFL-record 7,042 yards. Graham is playing for a new contract, and with a team-high eight touchdowns, he's assured a big payday. B
Remaining schedule: They have won two in a row and have a winnable game off their Nov. 3 bye against the Oakland Raiders. After that they get the Packers with Aaron Rodgers, followed by Dallas and Tony Romo, Washington and Robert Griffin III, the San Diego Chargers with Philip Rivers, Seattle with Russell Wilson, Detroit with Matthew Stafford and Washington with RG3 again.
What has gone well: Not much. But the coach Tom Coughlin has kept the Giants from fraying and pointing fingers, and they're playing hard. Linebacker Jon Beason and running back Peyton Hillis, who arrived in the last month, have helped sparked the team.
What has gone wrong: The team was undercut by injuries to right guard Chris Snee, center David Baas and tackle David Diehl, contributing to Manning's subpar play. His 15 interceptions aren't the hallmarks of a two-time Super Bowl MVP. Signing Brandon Myers (one touchdown) wasn't the answer at tight end.
Grade: Receiver Hakeem Nicks is pressing in a contract year with six dropped passes and no touchdowns. F
Remaining schedule: Rookie coach Chip Kelly's shot to win the NFC East in a down year for the division could come down to the Dec. 29 regular-season finale at Dallas. The Eagles also travel to Green Bay on Nov. 10, followed by a home game against Washington.
What has gone well: Kelly's offense proved an ideal fit for LeSean McCoy, second in the NFL in yards per rush (91.6, which would be a career high). When healthy, quarterback Michael Vick has been smart with the football, throwing just three interceptions after being a turnover machine the last two seasons. DeSean Jackson has emerged as a complete receiver.
What has gone wrong: The injury-prone Vick, injury-prone, can't stay healthy. It is likely that Kelly still doesn't have his quarterback of the future on this roster. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis' 31st ranked defense can't get off the field.
Grade: Kelly's high-revving, fifth-ranked blur offense has made the Eagles fun to watch. They're probably not a playoff team with that trap-door defense. But give Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman another offseason to fill the defensive holes and this team has a bright future. C
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Remaining schedule: Does it really matter? They're back to being the sacrificial Rams with Kellen Clemens replacing injured quarterback Sam Bradford and with a no-show run game yet to produce a rushing touchdown.
What has gone well: Wide receiver Austin Pettis has emerged as a chain-moving first-down and touchdown threat, leading the Rams with four scoring catches. Jared Cook has been decent as a tight end.
What has gone wrong: Coach Jeff Fisher is a run-game guy. But his Zac Stacy-led attack ranks 24th overall.
Grade: Robert Quinn has been a bright spot with 10 sacks. But the defense has been gashed by cut-back runners, notably in a 31-7, Week 3 loss against Dallas. D
SAN FRANCISCO 49ers
Remaining schedule: The 49ers are hot but they face tough November tests against improving Carolina, followed by a showdown against New Orleans. Circle the calendar for that Dec. 8 chance to atone for a 29-3 Week 2 thrashing by Seattle.
What has gone well: After back-to-back losses to the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts in September, coach Jim Harbaugh returned to his team's power running roots. He ran his offense through Frank Gore, the NFL's third-ranked rusher, and behind arguably the best offensive line. The 49ers have pounded out 13 of their 15 rushing scores during their five-game win streak.
What has gone wrong: The book is out on how to stop Colin Kaepernick after his late-season breakout run to Super Bowl XLVII. He has struggled when opponents take away top target Anquan Boldin. Sack master Aldon Smith entered a rehabilitation facility Sept. 23 after an arrest for DUI. It is not known when he will return. And when he does, he will be subject to suspension by the league.
Grade: After a couple of tough early losses, the 49ers are beginning to look like a Super Bowl contender again. Harbaugh made the right adjustment. The 49ers are still searching for a consistent third weapon to develop after Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. B
Remaining schedule: After their Nov. 24 bye, the schedule takes a decidedly tougher turn with a Dec. 2 home game against Brees and New Orleans, followed by a game at division rival San Francisco.
What has gone well: They lead the NFC West despite missing $67 million man Percy Harvin, who could return this week from Aug. 1 surgery on a torn hip labrum. The dynamic receiver's return should open up the box for running back Marshawn Lynch. Defensive end Cliff Avril is one of seven defenders with multiple sacks. Their secondary is tops, tied with the Denver Broncos for a league-high 13 interceptions.
What has gone wrong: Russell Wilson has taken a beating, sacked 27 times (33 all last season). It won't help that receiver Sidney Rice (torn ACL) will miss the rest of the season. Left tackle Russell Okung has been sidelined with a torn ligament in his big toe. Right tackle Breno Giacomini is still out after Sept. 30 arthroscopic knee surgery.
Grade: They sure didn't resemble the most complete team in football with their ugly 14-9 Monday night escape against St. Louis. But if they hold on to win NFC home-field advantage, the Seahawks will have a decided advantage. A
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Remaining schedule: Does it matter for this dismal team? The Panthers have left the winless Bucs for bottom feeders in the NFC South.
What has gone well: Big-ticket Darrelle Revis has made the strong comeback from knee reconstruction that general manager Mark Dominik and coach Greg Schiano bet on. A young defense is playing hard. Tackle tackle Gerald McCoy (two sacks) continues to be a rising star.
What has gone wrong: Player mistrust of Schiano after quarterback Josh Freeman was released following a personality clash. The Buccaneers are still searching for their quarterback answer. Rookie Mike Glennon so far is not it.
Grade: This team is an undisciplined mess, losing games on late penalties. "We can't even trip into a win,'' Revis said. "And that's sad." F
Remaining schedule: The disappointing Redskins get their Nov. 17 rematch against Kelly's Eagles, who burned them 33-27 in a season-opening win that wasn't that close. Things don't get easier with defending NFC champion San Francisco, followed by the Giants and a Dec. 8 home game against the unbeaten Kansas City Chiefs.
What has gone well: Robert Griffin III is beginning to show more flashes of his electric, 2012 self after a slow start coming off January right knee reconstruction. Rookie tight end Jordan Reed (two touchdowns, 34 receptions) has come on as a trusted, blitz-beating target.
What has gone wrong: Griffin has eight interceptions, three more than last year. A 29th-ranked defense has struggled, especially against the run. Strong safety Brandon Meriweather got a one-game suspension for repeated illegal hits. In a contract year coming off a lost 2012 season, linebacker Brian Orakpo hasn't made the expected impact.
Grade: Coch Mike Shanahan protected Griffin by holding him out of the preseason. But the first month of the season became Griffin's de facto preseason as the Redskins opened with three consecutive losses. Reed's emergence has made Fred Davis expendable. The defense is next to last in points allowed. D