CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he feels like his team has new life following losses by the Falcons and Saints this past weekend.
The Panthers (3-7-1) are now in control their own playoff destiny — if they win their final five games they will repeat as NFC South champions.
However, that will require a major turnaround from Carolina, which hasn't shown the ability to string together a winning streak. In fact, the Panthers have won only one game since Sept. 14.
"I know it's a little different and a little odd, and some people might think it's embarrassing, but I don't," Rivera said of the possibility of winning the NFC South. "You play the games that you play. There have been sixth seeds that have won Super Bowls, so...."
Carolina enters Sunday's game at Minnesota on a five-game losing streak but only a half game behind the Falcons and Saints in the division standings with head-to-head matchups against both teams remaining on the schedule.
Atlanta and New Orleans had chances to take control of the division but lost at home this past weekend.
"I'm sitting there watching the games and thinking, my goodness, if we just take care of our business," Rivera said.
Whether or not the Panthers can take care of their business remains to be seen.
The offense has struggled behind fourth-year quarterback Cam Newton, particularly early in games. The Panthers have scored only one touchdown and 19 points in the first half of their last five games, all of which resulted in losses.
Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil said the Panthers have "come to the party early" against Minnesota.
"It's not been good and it's been not fun — and it's not fun for the defense either," Kalil said of the slow starts that have repeatedly put Carolina in a hole. "That is the biggest focus for us this week."
Newton spent the bye week self-scouting and said the biggest issue he's faced is inconsistency.
The fourth-year quarterback has five touchdown passes and eight interceptions in the last five games. Two of those TD passes came in a garbage-time blowout loss to Philadelphia late in the fourth quarter.
He showed signs of progress in the fourth quarter of Carolina's 19-17 loss to Atlanta before the bye week, throwing two touchdown passes to get the Panthers back in the game before losing after Graham Gano missed two late field goals.
Still, Rivera said Newton is playing at a level high enough to get the Panthers to the playoffs.
"He has had some moments where he has had a couple of struggles and he's had times where he has played very well," Rivera said. "We haven't played collectively very well as a team and at times he hasn't played to where he's capable of."
Said Newton of own performance this season: "At times there are flashes but there isn't enough flash or flair to win football games."
Regardless of what has happened in the past, the Panthers are treating the final five games like a different season.
"We control our own destiny," running back DeAngelo Williams said. "And we with us controlling our own destiny we can either step up to the plate and swing and strikeout or knock it out of the park. In five weeks everybody will know."
In the meantime, the Panthers are hoping a trip to Minnesota again changes the course of their season.
Carolina was 1-3 last season when it went into Minnesota and beat the Vikings 35-10. The Panthers would go on to win 11 of their final 12 games and finish 12-4 and earn a first-round bye.
Whether or not they can replicate that magic remains to be seen.
"We are optimistic and happy about the opportunities that lay in front of us," Newton said. "We control our destiny — but this destiny is no easy catch."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL