CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Jordan Gross said the next two weeks will go a long way toward determining how people around the country perceive the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers' starting left tackle and co-captain said Carolina will start to earn some respect if they can beat San Francisco on the road Sunday and follow that up with a victory next Monday night at home against New England.
''I'm excited about the challenge ahead,'' Gross said. ''If we win these games everybody is going to say we're good. And if we lose these games everybody is going to say that we beat teams that weren't good.''
The Panthers (5-3) are starting to play like a playoff team, having won four straight games.
They've outscored their opponents 130-48 during that span have a plus-8 turnover ratio.
Quarterback Cam Newton has been playing well and the defense has kept opponents to 15 points or fewer.
However, some question the team's improvement since Carolina's five wins have come against teams with a combined 8-33 record.
The Panthers and coach Ron Rivera are saying this week's game against the 49ers is ''the biggest game because it's the next game.''
Despite the team's efforts to downplay the game's importance, this is one of the franchise's biggest games since their playoff loss in 2008 to the Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers haven't been above .500 since then until the past two weeks.
Rivera said given that the 49ers are NFC champions and are a talented team that plays physical and beating them on the road ''would be big'' for his team's confidence.
''They have a winning record,'' Rivera said.
Seven of Carolina's opponents this season so far don't. That was unexpected since the Panthers entered the season with the toughest schedule in the NFL based on last season's records.
The only team the Panthers have played with a winning record is the Seattle Seahawks (8-1), and they matched up pretty well against them. Carolina had a chance to win that game but running back DeAngelo Williams fumbled late in the game as the Panthers were driving for the potential go-ahead score.
The Panthers want to show they can compete with the NFC's best this week - and turn some heads.
''It's a game that a lot of football talking heads are talking about,'' Carolina safety Mike Mitchell said. ''So if we beat them, now they have to talk about us.
''But don't get it twisted in any way - we're a confident team. We know we're a good team and we made some mistakes early on and we know our record should be better than it is. We have a lot of respect for San Francisco, but we'd to keep ourselves relevant by beating them.''
The next two games won't be easy.
Not only do the Panthers face a pair of division leaders with playoff experience, but the 49ers and Patriots will both be coming off bye weeks.
Rivera said he had no problem with the NFL schedule when it came out and still doesn't have an issue with how it breaks down.
He said if the Panthers maintain their focus they can compete.
Either way, he said he'll know a lot more about his team pretty soon.
''You want to be able to beat teams like that - teams that have a lot,'' Rivera said of the 49ers. ''Because you are measuring yourself against them and I think it's a great opportunity to find out who you are and where you are headed.''
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