Stretching the Field: Panthers in rare position

( - Can the Carolina Panthers quench their postseason thirst for the first time since 2008?

They sure Cam.

Quarterback Cam Newton that is.

Carolina (4-3) has won three in a row thanks to Newton and moved above the .500 mark with Thursday night's convincing 31-13 triumph over the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Beating the Bucs is nothing to brag about these days, but the Panthers took care of business and didn't play down to their opponent.

If you want to play devil's advocate, however, Carolina's four wins have come against the Giants, Vikings, Rams and Buccaneers. The quartet has a combined five wins.

When was the last time the Panthers had a winning record anyway? Well, it was back in 2008. Newton was still in college and now he's the reason why the Panthers have a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. Yes, there are several NFC teams vying for that same goal and the Panthers are getting used to a winning attitude and added attention.

Head coach Ron Rivera said it's all about the players' confidence that has them in position to make a big run.

"I think the confidence is huge. I think the guys feel that they have an opportunity to win, they have an opportunity to get better and they're going to continue to work and try and do the things that they need to," Rivera said. "And that I think is important."

Rivera met with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson in the offseason and was given another chance to turn things around following two unsuccessful years. So far the team has backed up Rivera on both sides of the ball and the offense is clicking under Newton. The Panthers are riding the longest winning streak since closing out 2012 with four straight wins and Newton has been on fire during the current run.

Since a three-interception performance in a 22-6 loss at Arizona on Oct. 6, Newton has thrown for 667 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He's also rushed for 106 yards and two scores in that time and completed 23-of-32 attempts for 221 yards and a pair of TD passes against Tampa Bay. His 50 yards on the ground were a season high.

"Execution was the key to this game," Newton said Thursday. "We came out on fire as an offense, put up 14 points, hit a lull point, but at times we felt like we were clicking. I still think we can be a little bit more thorough going into the upcoming weeks."

The upcoming weeks won't be easy ones for the Panthers with NFC South-rival Atlanta, defending conference champion San Francisco and three-time Super Bowl champion New England on the slate. The Panthers, who played their second game in a five-day stretch, are ahead of the Falcons for second place in the division and New Orleans has a sizeable lead on top.

With the Falcons struggling this season, the Panthers could actually make a run in the NFC South. Staying above .500 would obviously be the goal.

"Well, it's a relief in numerous reasons," Newton said of the winning atmosphere. "Being .500 is just a small percentage of it. We just got to continue to keep meshing as a team, keep getting momentum in these upcoming weeks because we're about to hit the meat of our schedule and we're going to need every single ounce of energy. We got Atlanta coming up; we will celebrate and feel good about this win for just about a day, and mend and heal right and come back on Monday and get prepared for Atlanta."

Newton has been in total command the last few weeks and it's paying off. Success begins and ends with the quarterback and the Panthers are playing as well as anybody in the league right now. Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, whose main priority is protecting Newton's blind side, said the QB appears more comfortable knowing that he doesn't have to carry the load on his own and can just hand the ball to DeAngelo Williams or Mike Tolbert. When Jonathan Stewart returns, imagine how even more balanced Carolina can be.

"It's a culmination of a lot of things," Newton noted when asked why the Panthers have been so successful lately. "When you've got an offensive line protecting the way they're protecting, you've got a running back that's running and you've got receivers that are making plays after the catch, it's really not hard. It's just up to me to make the right decision."

Newton runs when he has to, which is why his rushing numbers are down in years past. And that's a good thing because he doesn't have to put his body in harm's way all the time. He is maturing under center, making the correct reads and getting rid of the ball when he needs to.

"I feel as if my production is off a lot of people's production as well," Newton said. "If you want to solely say I'm playing great, it also means a lot of other guys are playing great. This is not a one-man show. I understand that, and I will not have that type of attitude."

Actually, it is a one-man show because if opposing teams stop Newton, they're stopping the Panthers. He's the head of the snake so to speak. As Newton goes, so go the Panthers. It's that simple. Let's be honest, if Newton goes down and Derek Anderson is forced to call signals, those playoff aspirations are toast.

On a side note, the Panthers' defense has vastly improved from years past. They are one of the best in total yards allowed (301.4), pass defense (222.1), run defense (79.3), sacks (22.0) and interceptions (9). Give credit to defensive coordinator Sean McDermott for getting the ball into Newton's hands.

Newton recognized the Panthers have reached the meaty part of the schedule and the next month will be a major test to see if they're contenders. In what will be a game-by-game approach, the Panthers are in position to make something happen and finally earn the respect they've been seeking in five years.