The Panthers know if they want to get back on the winning track Sunday against the Houston Texans they'll need to do something nobody has managed to accomplish - beat T.J. Yates.
Yates has rewritten the history books this month, becoming the first former North Carolina Tar Heel to start a game at quarterback in the NFL and the first rookie in 43 years to lead his team to come-from-behind wins the fourth quarter or overtime of his first two starts.
Yates, who led the Texans to wins against Atlanta and Cincinnati and the franchise's first playoff berth, will be hard to stop in the mind of Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team gave up four touchdown passes last week to Matt Ryan.
''Each week, he's (Yates) getting better and better,'' said Rivera. ''I don't want to say they want him to manage the game. They want him to make plays. They're trying to put him in a position to make plays.''
Yates has made huge plays at the end of back-to-back come-from-behind wins - 17-10 at home against Atlanta in his starting debut on Dec. 4 and 20-19 at Cincinnati last Sunday. It came after getting his first career action at the end of Houston's 20-13 win at Jacksonville on Nov. 27 and only after Texans starter Matt Schaub and backup Matt Leinart were injured and lost for the season.
Last week's victory not only ensured the NFC North division title but made Yates the first rookie quarterback to lead winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime of his first two starts since Virgil Carter did so for the Chicago Bears in 1968. And he's the first quarterback of any level of experience to do so in his first two career starts since Seattle's Jon Kitna in 1997 and 1998.
Those comebacks alone have gotten the attention of the Panthers.
''That's an impressive thing,'' Panthers linebacker Dan Connor said. ''A lot was on the line for them and he helped them win. That says a lot about him as a quarterback to be able to do that, especially when he's a rookie.''
Since the Panthers have their own rookie quarterback in Cam Newton, what do they think of Yates and his two-and-a-half game sample of play?
''We actually looked at him,'' Rivera said of Carolina's pre-draft workouts before Houston selected Yates in the fifth round of April's draft. ''He's very talented.''
Said defensive lineman Jason Shirley: ''When their starting quarterback went down, they didn't miss a step and he's doing his thing.''
Added defensive back Sherrod Martin: ''He's done a good job of doing what they like to do well.''
Everything that Yates has done so far this season has worked, even as even he is surprised he's gotten the chance to play.
''Having two guys go down in front of you is not something you wish for,'' Yates said. ''But at the same time, you have to take advantage of your opportunities.''
Yates says last year's turbulent 8-5 season at North Carolina in which 15 Tar Heels were suspended for all or part of the 2010 season due to an ongoing NCAA investigation prepared him for this year.
''My senior year at North Carolina was a crazy one as everybody knows,'' said Yates, who finished his UNC career as the school's leading all-time passer (9,377 yards). ''Every single week, we were getting somebody back or losing somebody to suspension it seemed. It made me realize that you always have to be ready and prepared me for every situation.''
The support Yates received from head coach Gary Kubiak also has made an impact on the rookie quarterback. Many NFL observers felt the Texans would sign a veteran quarterback as they were making their playoff push.
Instead, Kubiak installed Yates as his starter and the Texans signed veteran (and former Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme) as Yates' backup.
''He came out and told me right away that I was going to be the guy,'' Yates said. ''He said they were going to get somebody to be the backup. So, for me to go into that week's preparation, it gave me a world of confidence.''
Notes: Rivera hasn't made a decision about his starting kicker for Sunday's game. After key missed field goals this season, including a potential lead-changing 31-yarder in the 31-23 loss to Atlanta on Sunday, veteran Olindo Mare is competing with rookie Adi Kunalic. ''Competing seems to bring out the best in people and we think that's happening,'' Rivera said. ... The Panthers listed seven players on the injury report but Rivera felt all but cornerback Darius Butler (head) would play Sunday. ... As the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, Panther quarterback Cam Newton had a vote for this year's award. He didn't reveal his vote, but did say he watched the ceremony from his hotel room last Saturday as he prepared for the Atlanta game. ''I'm a big RG3 fan,'' Newton said of trophy-winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor. ''I'm happy to see him winning. What he did this year was extraordinary.''