The importance of Monday night's game against the New England Patriots is not lost on Cam Newton.
Carolina (6-3) has won five straight behind the third-year quarterback and is "relevant" for the first time since winning the NFC South in 2008.
"We need this more than anything," Newton said. "The Carolinas need this more than anything."
The city of Charlotte is bristling with excitement over its NFL team's recent success, particularly after a 10-9 win last Sunday against the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. So it sets up for an electric atmosphere when Tom Brady comes to town.
The Panthers haven't won a postseason game since 2005 and playoff-starved fans sense this is the year to turn it around.
"Everyone has been (hoping) for a magical season," Newton said. "No one wants to be affiliated with mediocrity, or something that's just bland, so to speak. For the past couple of years, we know it, the Carolina Panthers haven't been the hot topic or the hot thing in the league."
This game could change all of that.
Although the Panthers are gaining some respect nationally — they rank sixth in the AP Pro32 poll, two spots behind the Patriots — they still trail the New Orleans Saints by a game in the NFC South standings after rebounding from a 1-3 start.
"This (high) we're on right now, no one in that locker room wants to come down from it," Newton said. "... In that locker room after that (San Francisco) game, you would have thought doggone Jesus came back. Honestly. It was that type of feeling. It was a great feeling and we want to continue having that type feeling."
Newton said now is not the time to relish a five-game winning streak, but rather to push forward to something greater.
"We can't just stop and say, 'Hey, let's pop bottles. Let's do this and let's do that. Let's celebrate, order some hot wings and pizza,'" Newton said.
The need to win isn't quite as pressing for the Patriots (7-2), who hold a two-game lead over the New York Jets in the AFC East.
Still, Brady and the Patriots seem to thrive in the spotlight. Brady is 13-4 in Monday night games with 41 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions.
"It will be fun," said Brady, now in his 13th season. "These games are getting later and later in the year and they are getting more and more important."
Five things to watch in the Patriots-Panthers game:
BRADY'S BIGGEST TEST: Brady torched the Steelers for 432 yards and four touchdowns before the bye week, but he hasn't seen a defense quite like the Panthers this year. Carolina comes in allowing the second-fewest points and yards in the league. "They play great team defense and they have every stat — third down, red zone area, sacks and turnovers. They got it all," Brady said. "We have to play really well and our execution has to be right on."
FAST STARTS: New England coach Bill Belichick said the Patriots must bring intensity right from the start. The Panthers have yet to allow a touchdown in the first quarter and have led every game at halftime except last week at San Francisco, when they trailed 9-7. "Us being able to be ready to go and being able to match that — the intensity and the execution that they have — will be a key part of this game," Belichick said.
WILLIAMS AND COMPANY: There's no doubt the Panthers' 10th-ranked rushing offense will look to run the ball against a run defense that ranks 30th in the league. Carolina's offense features a trio of solid running backs with a now healthy Jonathan Stewart teaming with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert.
GRONK'S CONTRIBUTIONS: Tight end Rob Gronkowski seems to rounding nicely into form after missing the first six games of the season. Gronkowski had nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown in a win over Pittsburgh. He's expected to be a major factor against a Carolina team that has struggled at times with defending tight ends.
MITCHELL'S ATTITUDE: Free safety Mike Mitchell has brought a bold attitude — and plenty of play-making ability — to the Carolina secondary. He is the only NFL player with at least three picks, two sacks and two forced fumbles this season. "He brings a little bit of swagger back there to that group," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He's funny because a lot of things have been said about the secondary and he keeps saying, 'Keep bringing the challenges.' I think it's a mentality that he's helped to permeate as far as that group."
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