CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Just once since the Panthers' 2008 NFC South championship season have they had a chance to crawl above .500 outside of a season opener.That opportunity came a season ago with a 1-1 Panthers team heading into a Thursday night date with the New York Giants.
The Giants rolled, 36-7.
At 3-3, the Panthers get another chance on a Thursday night at Tampa Bay. This one's bigger, though. It comes with the chance to establish this team as a legitimate playoff contender in the NFC after starting 1-3.
"Its huge because were relevant," coach Ron Rivera said. "Were a young team thats gotten to the point now where were doing the things that we need to do and showing we are capable. And we have to. Its a great opportunity for this team and this city to make a mark and we have to go out and do that."
Not only is it the chance to reclaim a winning record, but its an opportunity to improve to 1-0 in the NFC South. Safety Mike Mitchell described it as like winning two when they take one in the division, and the Panthers are aware of the standings and the road ahead, sitting two games back of the Saints.
"We got to get to 4-3. The NFCs going to take 10 or 11 wins to get that wildcard spot,"Mitchell said. "New Orleans got a good lead on us, theyre doing a heckuva job, but we got to win these games."
Ron Rivera continues to preach that all games are equal. But theres no denying this one is different. Its a turning point of sorts. Win and the Panthers are going to turn some heads across the league as a potential challenger for one of the wildcard slots.
But take a loss to the winless Buccaneers (0-6) and the only chatter out of Charlotte is going to be these are the same old Panthers.
"I really think this game is going to come down to us being very efficient as well as aggressive and taking the life out of the home crowd as much as we can," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We have to know what were doing on each and every play and constantly apply pressure. Playing a road game like this, were going to have to put up points."
That wont be so easy versus the Bucs.
For all their offensive inefficiencies, their defense hasnt been that bad ranking 13th in the NFL in points allowed per game at 22. Any time a defense has Darrelle Revis, its not to be overlooked.
"I think its kind of an oxymoron when you say Revis is exciting because for him the less action is when hes at his best. He doesnt necessarily have to be the guy to get the interceptions, hes more likely the guy that locks somebody down the whole game," Newton said. "When people say Revis Island, its real. We all know that and all our receivers are ready for this matchup."
The offense and Newton, in particular is playing its best football of the year, averaging 32.5 points per gamein back-to-back wins.Newton has posted 446 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions over that stretch. He points all the credit for his recent play to his team and deflects any notion that hes doing anything differently, but Rivera says hes noticing Newton going through his reads quicker and getting to that third or fourth progression on plays.
"I think hes got a great feel for that. I think hes really worked on that and youre starting to see the fruits of that labor. Hes worked very hard on going through the progressions, understanding what it takes," Rivera said. "And a couple times it cost him because he held the ball waiting for the third or fourth read, but hes taking his time the time to do those things that he needs to, and he understands its and hes just gotten better and better at it."
Its the opposite story for the Bucs' offense. They were already second-to-last in the league in total yards (298) and points (14.5), and now they come into a date with the Panthers struggling on offense and likely missing their best player running back Doug Martin, who has a torn labrum.
Rivera says that shouldnt change anything for the Panthers because coach Greg Schiano is going to stick with the same offensive plan, but taking away a top NFL back cant help things. Mitchell, for example, said people really sleep on Doug Martin and said hes clearly one of the best backs in the league because he runs angry.
Thats the kind of loss that will be tough for rookie quarterback Mike Glennon to overcome.
I know its tough for them, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. Thats a blow to them, but next man up. I know theyve got two other running backs who can step up. If he plays or if he doesnt play, shut him down.
The Panthers defense has done a lot of shutting down recently. It ranks second in points allowed (13.8), third in yards per game (302), fourth in rushing yards (84.5) and fifth in passing (217.7). Defensive end Charles Johnson even says this defense could be the best defense he's ever played on by the end of the year. Thats rough sledding for an immobile, rookie quarterback, and its no secret what the plan of attack will be.
"Hes a good quarterback, but hes still a rookie, though," Johnson said. "Were going to try to make him make bad decisions, disguise a little bit and stop the run and get after him up front."
Thats been their calling card all year and that wont change. The defense wants to establish itself from the start and allow the offense to get ahead early. Winless or not, the Panthers know they cant allow the Buccaneers to get that feeling of confidence they themselves are currently riding in front of their home crowd.
"The thing is when you get a team thats down if you come out and jump out on him itll be kind of like here we go again," Mitchell said. "But if you give them hope man, youre about to get that dog fight and as that game stays close, theyre like 'Man, we're this close to our first win.' You dont want to give a team that. You got to start fast."
Short weeks are tough. There's no complaining because it's the job but the film studys crammed, treatments more important and the tempo isnt as fast at practice on a short week. After flopping on their short week a year ago, the plan hasnt changed. The problem last year was execution and they'll have to do a better job to get above .500 this time around.
We just need to keep things rolling. Thats what were talking about right now: take one game at a time and this is what we need to do right now, linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
It's what they need to do if they want to play in January for the first time in five years as well.
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