CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Jordan Gross said the next two weeks will go a long way toward determining how people perceive the Carolina Panthers nationally.
The Panthers starting left tackle and co-captain says 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 look 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, for the most part, has been playing lights out an the defense has kept its opponents to 15 points or less.
However, some question the team's legitimacy since Carolina's five wins have come against teams with a combined 8-33 record.
The Panthers have taken a page from coach Ron Rivera this week with several players reiterating his comments that this week's game against the 49ers is ''the biggest game because it's the next game.''
Despite the team's efforts to downplay its importance, the reality is this is the franchise's biggest game since their playoff loss in 2008 to the Arizona Cardinals. The Panthers haven't been above .500 since then until the last 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.
By no fault of their own, seven of Carolina's opponents this year so far don't. That's a little ironic since the Panthers entered the season with the toughest schedule in the NFL based on last year'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 go-ahead score.
The Panthers look 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 are both coming off bye weeks. That means an extra week to prepare for Newton.
Rivera said he had no problem with the NFL schedule when it came out and still doesn't have an issue with it 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.''
AP NFL website www.pro32.ap.org
Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SteveReedAP