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Panthers reverse the tide, suddenly finding ways to win close games during 7-game win streak

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    Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) runs from a tackle by Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91) during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Panthers defeated the Dolphins 20-16. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)The Associated Press

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    Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) waves as he walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Olsen scored the winning touchdown as the Panthers defeated the Dolphins 20-16. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)The Associated Press

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    Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) catches a 1-yard touchdown pass over Miami Dolphins' Chris Clemons (30) during the second half of an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Panthers defeated the Dolphins 20-16. (AP Photo/The Miami Herald, Charles Trainor Jr.) MAGAZINES OUTThe Associated Press

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    Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera watches his team during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)The Associated Press

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    Miami Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon (50) sacks Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)The Associated Press

There was a time when Ron Rivera's Carolina Panthers couldn't win a close game. Now they refuse to lose them.

The streaking Panthers (8-3) have won seven straight games, including the last three by erasing fourth quarter deficits.

That has helped stem the tide that had plagued Rivera during most of his tenure in Carolina.

The Panthers had fallen to 2-14 under Rivera in games decided by seven points or less after a Week 2 loss at Buffalo. The last three victories have shown the Panthers can win tight games.

"I think it has a lot to do with us growing up as a team," Rivera said Monday. "The growth of our quarterback and our offensive unit; the growth of our defensive unit as well. These guys understand what it takes now and they are growing and getting better and better. By no means are we there, but we have done the things we needed to give ourselves a chance to win."

Cam Newton has been a big catalyst in the win streak that has likely saved Rivera's job.

On Sunday against Miami with his back against the wall, the former No. 1 overall draft pick riffled a pass between two defenders to Steve Smith on fourth-and-10 from his own 20 with 2:33 left in the game and his team down by three. That 19-yard reception sparked the winning drive with Newton connecting on a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 43 seconds left.

Olsen said Newton's confidence level has been "really high" during the win streak.

"He feels really good about what we do in the passing game. He feels really good about both the designed runs and his ability to extend plays when things break down," Olsen said. ... "We're really fortunate he's playing really well and he's really carried us through these last seven games."

Sunday was a game the Panthers likely would have found a way to lose the last two years — or even earlier this season.

But Rivera said there is a noticeable increase in the confidence level on the Carolina sideline. Rivera said the Panthers now think they're going to win even when things aren't going well.

"You're not supposed to win a game but something happens and then all of a sudden there is a confidence that we can do these things," Rivera said. "We can make things happen. We can make plays when we need them."

It's not just Newton that has stepped up.

Rivera attributes a big part of winning close games to his defense holding opponents to field goals instead of touchdowns in the red zone. Only Baltimore's defense has a better touchdown percentage inside the 20.

"We're a confident bunch, man, and we believe in each other," linebacker Thomas Davis said after Carolina's 20-16 win over Miami. "We feel like we can win every game that we play in."

The players were given the day off Monday and will turn their attention to preparing for this week's home game against Tampa Bay on Wednesday.

Clearly it's a fun time to be a Carolina Panther.

And few seem to be enjoying the win streak more than Newton.

After a rushing touchdown on Sunday against Miami, Newton mimicked LeBron James' celebration — one the Heat star used on Saturday night after hitting the winning shot to beat the Orlando Magic.

"I'm in the 305 (Miami's area code) where he has reigned supreme with him, D Wade and Chris Bosh," Newton said Sunday. "I'm big fans of those guys. I know LeBron and I kind of owed him for doing my celebration when they came to Charlotte. So any time I have an opportunity to come back I was going to bring a shout out back to him."

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