CHARLOTTE __ The Carolina Panthers have a seven-game winning streak and are arguably the hottest team in the NFL, but they nearly stubbed their toe in Miami last Sunday and know the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a much better team than their 3-8 record indicates.
The Panthers are 8-3, with a 31-13 victory at Tampa Bay in Week 8 on their resume.
"We are facing a good team that is now playing with confidence," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the Bucs, who have a three-game winning streak of their own. "We knew they were a good team when we played them earlier and now they are showing it."
The Bucs looked as good as dead after the Panthers dropped them to 0-7. But in Week 9, Tampa went to Seattle and nearly handed the Seahawks their first home loss since 2011. Despite falling to 0-8, the Bucs have seemingly flipped a switch and have won their last three games.
That means Sunday's rematch in Charlotte will be an unlikely pairing of two of the hottest teams in the league. And while it could look like a trap game for the Panthers, who have tied a franchise record with seven straight regular-season wins, and who have two huge games with the Saints coming up after Week 13, perhaps they learned their lesson after a lackluster first half performance in Miami nearly snapped their win streak.
"There are no trap games. It's a myth," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "In this league you always have to be ready for the challenges."
One of Carolina's biggest challenges Sunday will be to rattle rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. November's NFC Offensive Player of the Month has thrown just one interception in his last six games, helping the Bucs halt their freefall.
The Panthers, whose defense is tied for third in the league with 15 interceptions, were not able to pick off Glennon in their first meeting, and despite the loss he finished with a solid line of 30 of 51 passing for 275 yards and a touchdown.
Defensive end Charles Johnson did get to Glennon for two sacks that game, but Johnson will likely miss his second straight game with a knee sprain.
The Panthers' front seven is good, but not as good without Johnson, and as Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill proved last week, if a quarterback has time he could expose Carolina's secondary.
But the biggest challenge may fall on Rivera. Even though Newton and others say the right things about "trap games," it could be human nature to look ahead to Week 14's Sunday Night Football matchup with the Saints.
It's Rivera's job to get his team to focus solely on the resurgent Bucs.
Of course, Rivera has done his job well the past couple months, so much so that he is being discussed as a possible coach of the year candidate. His response to that chatter: "I'd rather win team of the year."
That's a quote of a coach with a one-track mind. Now he needs to makes sure his players have the same singular focus on Week 13 and not on the potential of weeks ahead.