TAMPA, Fla. – The Carolina Panthers seemed finished after the first four games of this season.
Carolina was expected to compete for a playoff spot, but began the year 1-3. Panthers quarterback Cam Newtown threw six touchdowns and five interceptions during that time span. Carolina reportedly was laying the groundwork to replace coach Ron Rivera after the season.
Suddenly, something unexpected happened.
The Panthers began winning.
Carolina defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-13, at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday, but this victory was more significant than knocking off an NFC South rival.
The Panthers now have a 4-3 record, and it marks the first time this team has been above .500 since 2008.
“We got a winning record,” Rivera said. “It’s great for these guys. A lot of these guys haven’t had one … For these guys, it’s great. I’m excited for the players.”
Panthers receiver Steve Smith curtailed his excitement.“It means we’re 4-3. It means we’re not 0-7 [like the Buccaneers],” Smith said. “It means a lot. I rather be where we are than where they are today.”
Tampa Bay has lost 12 of its past 13 games under coach Greg Schiano.
While Schiano’s job is in jeopardy, Rivera has a chance to solidify his position in Carolina. The Panthers won four consecutive games last season, and Rivera has the opportunity to tie that mark with another win next week.
“We hear the same stuff that you guys hear,” Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. said. “The type of man that he is, and the type of coach that he is, you always want to give somebody a chance. You want to give him a chance, too. You want to go out and turn it around and make it better for him, too. That’s what it’s all about.”
Carolina’s resurgence has also been about Newton.
During Carolina’s win on Thursday, Newton completed 23-of-32 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns, plus he added 50 rushing yard and one touchdown. Newton has thrown six TDs and no interceptions during Carolina’s three-game win streak. He has also rushed for two scores.
Newton has never been about .500 since entering the league in 2011, but declined to take the credit for Carolina’s recent success.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” Newton said. “When you got an offensive line that is protecting the way they are protecting. You got a running back that’s running, 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 and get the ball into people’s hands that it needs to be.”
Newton even benefited from Ginn's boxing out of cornerback Darrelle Revis on his 6-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
“I didn’t really have nowhere to go and I was kind of like in the middle of the play,” Ginn said. “I couldn’t really turn around and block him. I just tried to box him out and gave Cam the [nod], come on, man, and he went in for the score. It’s kind of crazy how it worked out, but it worked out.”
It is also crazy how this season is working out for the Panthers.
There was a time when this team finished. Now it appears the Panthers are just getting started.
“We just got to continue to keep meshing as a team, keep building, and keep getting momentum in these upcoming weeks because we’re about to hit the meat of our schedule,” Newton said. “We’re going to need every single ounce of energy that we have. We got Atlanta coming up. We will celebrate, feel good about this win for just about a day, mend, heal right, come back on Monday and get prepared for Atlanta.”
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