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Panthers prove their worth as contenders with win over 49ers

Cam Newton's Panthers escaped a quality opponent to move to 6-3 on the season.  (Jed Jacobsohn/SI)Cam Newton's Panthers escaped a quality opponent to move to 6-3 on the season. (Jed Jacobsohn/SI)

On Oct. 6, the Carolina Panthers stood with a 1-3 record following their 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and it was thought to be another lost campaign for a team that had not enjoyed a winning record since 2008. At that point, head coach Ron Rivera, who had barely escaped an offseason firing at the hands of team owner Jerry Richardson, must have felt that his seat was hotter than ever. And quarterback Cam Newton, who was sacked seven times in that game, was as frustrated as could be -- both with his overall performance and that of his team.

"I have to do a better job of protecting the football," Newton said after the Cardinals game. "We had our opportunities in the red zone multiple times and we just couldn't seem to get it together. We are not going to sob or get beside ourselves or go into a shell. We are going to keep fighting. That is what this team is full of."

A little over a month later, it's safe to say that the rest of the NFL knows exactly what the Panthers are full of. With their 10-9 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park, Carolina has put together a five-game win streak, very much under the radar, and denigrated by some for the ease of the Panthers schedule. Before the San Francisco win, the Panthers had rolled off victories over the Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons. Not one of those teams has a winning record, but Sunday's win has to put the Panthers in a new light.

"It’s another win," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "It’s another week. The next game is the biggest game. The next game is Monday. It’s the biggest game of the season. We’re going to go to work this week and put in a lot of blood, sweat and tears so we can come out with the same swagger and attitude we had this week. We’re going to take what we want. We’re going to do what we want. That’s because we believe and work and run each other down to the bone until Monday and come out and hit them in the mouth with a nasty attitude.”

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As has been the case through most of the season, many of the plays came from Carolina's front seven, which must be seen as one of the NFL's best. That defense limited 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to 11-of-22 completions for 91 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. And the San Francisco running game, which had been so effective through the Niners own five-game winning streak, was held to 105 total yards.

Newton didn't play at his best, but he did well enough, completing 16-of-32 passes for 169 yards and an interception. Through Carolina's five-game ride, he's hit on 97-of-144 passes for 1,085 yards, seven touchdowns and only three picks. And the 6-3 Panthers are in the NFC fight-- not only for a wild-card berth, but also for the NFC South title. The division-leading New Orleans Saints, who play the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday night, are 6-2 and have lost two of their last three games. The Panthers and Saints face off on Dec. 8 and Dec. 22.

“I think this game is a maturity jump for us," Newton said Sunday afternoon. "In the past, what I’ve been a part of, we’ve been somewhat uncertain on how we would turn out in these types of games. That is why we are more excited than ever. We endured, we kept believing in ourselves, in the coach, in who we are. We executed and we finished. In these past couple of weeks, yes it showed what kind of team we are but we were putting up a lot of points and I think today we needed this type of game, just to be in a dog fight and to show what type of team this really is. I said it numerous times. We are a relentless bunch of guys that will continue to keep fighting and putting our best foot forward.”

For the first time in the era of Newton and Rivera, the Panthers have a formula for sustained success. And the rest of the league had better watch out. The rest of the nation will see this up close when Carolina takes on the New England Patriots on the Nov. 18 edition of Monday Night Football.

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