Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) celebrates after running for a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Mike McCarn
December 22, 2014

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers have used another strong December push under fourth-year coach Ron Rivera to reclaim the NFC South division lead.

Yes, the 6-8-1 Panthers.

Despite going more than two months without a victory this season, Carolina enters Week 17 in first place and needing a win or tie Sunday at Atlanta to repeat as division champions after climbing back into the playoff hunt with a 3-0 December.

''Believe me, I always said it - we're in it,'' Rivera said. ''Again, I'm making no apologies for being in it.''

Strong finishes have become commonplace since Rivera's arrival.

The Panthers are 14-3 in December games since Rivera took over as coach in 2011. Only Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have a better record (15-2), according to STATS.

Rivera attributes Carolina's strong finish to incorporating younger players into the lineup late in the season, and his players putting in extra work on the field after practice.

''A lot of our guys stay after to do the extra things, the little things,'' Rivera said. ''A lot of our young players do the little things. Probably the one thing I wish is we could be better in the month of October or late September, that's for sure.''

In the midst of a seven-game winless streak, the Panthers decided to begin playing younger - and in many cases, faster - players. They got rid of veteran wide receiver Jason Avant and cornerback Antoine Cason and benched safety Thomas DeCoud.

The result is a team that looks different than the one that lined up opening day.

The Panthers started a franchise-record seven rookies on Sunday against Cleveland.

Philly Brown started alongside Kelvin Benjamin, giving the Panthers more speed at wide receiver. Guards Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner have helped shore up the offensive line.

Defensively, the Panthers start two rookies in the secondary in cornerback Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston. Rookie outside linebacker Adarius Glanton got his first start Sunday in place of the injured A.J. Klein.

''You get seven rookies on the field playing meaningful minutes at meaningful times in the game, that's a big number,'' Rivera said. ''I thought they've all handled it well.''

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said Rivera placed an emphasis on winning in his first season in 2011.

Rivera inherited a team that went 2-14 in the year before and the Panthers got off to a rocky 3-8 start.

Instead of writing off the season, Rivera talked about building a foundation for the future.

The Panthers, with nothing to play for, went 3-2 in December that season.

That momentum seems to have carried over.

The Panthers have won 10 of their past 11 December games, including a 17-13 victory at home against Cleveland on Sunday.

''We talked about getting used to winning in December,'' Shula said. ''Because that is what you are going to have to do to get in the postseason.''

Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said the players never stopped believing they could win the division.

''We just had to tweak a couple things and by the time December rolled around, we were a team that was ready to roll,'' Kuechly said. ''We got hot at the right time. We've just got to keep rolling now.''

NOTES: The Panthers have activated defensive end Frank Alexander from the reserve/exempt list and placed wide receiver De'Andre Presley on injured reserve with a concussion. Anderson missed 14 games while serving consecutive suspensions for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

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