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Panthers rolling, but questions remain about true strength

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In their first two seasons under head coach Ron Rivera, the Carolina Panthers had a tendency to play down to their level of competition. Now that Carolina has seemingly kicked the habit and has beaten four opponents with a combined record of 5-22, many are still wondering how the team will do now that the Panthers are done with the soft part of their schedule

"In all honesty, it doesn't matter what others think," Rivera said Friday, a day after the Panthers beat the winless Buccaneers in Tampa Bay. "The truth of the matter is how we feel about ourselves - and we feel pretty good about who we are. Will we be tested down the line? Absolutely. Every week is a test. In this league it is very hard to win."

Over .500 for the first time since 2008, the 4-3 Panthers face a key stretch of games over the next month. They play host to division rival Atlanta in Week 9, followed by a trip to San Francisco, a Monday Night game in Charlotte against New England and a road game in Miami. Of the seven opponents left on their schedule, only two - the Bucs and Falcons - have records below .500.

But the Panthers do seem to have found a confidence not seen around Charlotte since their last playoff appearance five years ago. Much of the credit for that should go to Rivera, whose newfound trust in his offense in key situations has set an aggressive tone for his whole team.

Rivera made another right call in the right situation Thursday, going for it on fourth down on a third-quarter drive that eventually ended with a Carolina touchdown. Since eschewing a fourth-down chance at the end of a Week 2 loss in Buffalo, the Panthers have gone for it six times on fourth down, converting four of those chances.

"We have some really good weapons, and by not going for it on fourth down I took the ball out of their hands. That's crazy," Rivera said.

"I've had a couple players come up and say, 'Hey, thanks for showing confidence in us.' As a coach, that's important, because now you feel like, you know what, I am doing the right things, the players are behind me. They believe in themselves, and that's exciting."

Now, with the meat of the schedule ahead, many are excited to see just how good this team really is.

The Panthers are over .500 for the first time since they lost in the playoffs at the end of the 2008 season - a span of 71 games.

Only nine players remain from that 2008 team, including left tackle Jordan Gross.

"It's been a long time since we've been in this position," Gross said. "We put ourselves in a position where we're in the mix, and that's great. Guys in this locker room deserve that. The young guys that have never felt this deserve it. Coach Rivera deserves it.

"The thing that I love is that nobody around here thinks that we finished anything."

After combining to win just one game in October the previous two seasons, the Panthers finish this October with three wins.

--DE Charles Johnson suffered a groin strain late in the fourth quarter against the Bucs. An MRI Friday was negative and the Panthers are hopeful the Georgia native will be ready to go against the Falcons in Week 9.

--RB DeAngelo Williams bruised a quadriceps. He will receive treatment over the weekend and Rivera said he expects Williams to play against Atlanta.

REPORT CARD VS. BUCS

PASSING OFFENSE: B - QB Cam Newton was mistake-free and finished with a passer rating over 100 for the third straight game. Newton's numbers of 22-for-32 for 221 yards and two touchdowns would have been even better if not for drops by WR Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell. Newton was masterful spreading the ball around, completing passes to nine different receivers with five guys catching more than one pass.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus - RB DeAngelo Williams did not get a lot of work, handling eight carries for 43 yards. Williams has not looked good during the Panthers' win streak, but he did score his first touchdown of the year Thursday. FB Mike Tolbert was a big part of the game plan early and wound up with seven carries for 35 yards. QB Cam Newton led Carolina with a season-high 50 yards on 11 carries.

PASS DEFENSE: C-plus - Bucs rookie QB Mike Glennon did not look all that bad. He was 30-for-51 for 275 yards and a touchdown, but his receivers let him down with a number of drops. Bucs WR Vincent Jackson had a big drop that ended Tampa Bay's first drive and he was limited to five receptions for 79 yards. The Panthers sacked Glennon three times, but they did not intercept him.

RUSH DEFENSE: A+ - Filling in for injured RB Doug Martin, rookie Mike James gained just 39 yards on 10 carries. The Bucs totaled just 48 yards on the ground, the fewest the stingy Panthers' run defense has given up this season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-minus - K Graham Gano stayed perfect on field-goal attempts this season with a 29-harder in the fourth quarter. S Colin Jones recovered a Bucs botched punt return with some great hustle down the field.

COACHING: A-minus - Head coach Ron Rivera continues to press the right buttons. His call to go for it on a fourth down in the second half eventually led to a touchdown that helped Carolina pull away for good. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula called another smart game and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott stymied the inferior Tampa Bay offense.
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