- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Panthers have a red hot quarterback, a stifling defense and — finally — a winning record following a three-game win streak.
Momentum is on their side.
And that's a good thing for the Panthers (4-3), who are entering a tough stretch of November games against division rival Atlanta, San Francisco, New England and Miami.
Critics will contend the Panthers haven't beaten anyone.
Carolina's four wins have come against teams with a combined 5-22 record.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said by no means has his team arrived but he's quick to add that "It doesn't matter what others think because the truth of the matter is how we feel about ourselves — and we feel pretty good about who we are."
The Panthers have won four of their last five after starting 0-2.
Quarterback Cam Newton is leading the charge back to what Rivera calls "being relevant," completing 77 percent of his passes over the last three games for 647 yards with six touchdown passes. He's run for two other TDs and has not turned the ball over during that stretch.
The Panthers are 4-3 — back above .500 for the first time since the 2008 season.
"We just have to continue to keep meshing as a team, keep building off and keep getting momentum in these upcoming weeks because we are about to hit the meat of our schedule," Newton said after Carolina's dominating 31-13 win over Tampa Bay on Thursday night. "We are going to need every single ounce of energy that we will have."
Players were not made available to the media on Friday.
Rivera said he's treating this weekend as a pseudo bye week, giving the players three days off before beginning preparations for the Falcons on Monday.
Newton's improved play over the last three weeks has overshadowed the play of the Carolina's defense, which came into the Tampa Bay allowing the second-fewest points and third fewest yards per game in the NFL.
The Panthers limited the Bucs to 297 yards in their 31-13 win Thursday night.
"We feel like we are headed toward (being) a serious playoff defense," said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had one of three sacks on Bucs rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. "I feel like we're playing up to our potential, but there is so much potential in the room. We're not even close."
Newton appears to be reaching his potential the past three weeks after starting his career with a 14-22 record.
The third-year quarterback has been quick to deflect attention to his teammates, saying his improved play is a reflection of everyone else stepping up around him.
Newton said it helps that the Panthers have been running the ball with consistency.
Carolina has run for at least 95 yards in every game this season.
Starting running back DeAngelo Williams injured his quadriceps against the Bucs and could need some time to heal. But the good news for the Panthers is they'll get another weapon back on offense next week. Jonathan Stewart, another former first-round draft pick, could be activated to the 53-man roster next week after spending the first eight weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list recovering from ankle surgery.
Carolina's defense has only allowed three points in the first quarter all season and as a result the Panthers have led at halftime in all seven games this season.
It's just now that they're figuring out how to put teams away in the second half.
"We have a lot of relentless guys, and we just continue to keep pushing," Newton said Thursday night. "Coach has always harped on finishing. In multiple games that I have played in here, we had a lack thereof of finishing."
NOTES: Rivera said defensive end Charles Johnson had an MRI on his groin that was negative. He'll be reevaluated on Monday. Johnson has six sacks on the season.
AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP