Thursday night's win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was more than a decent team beating a bad one, it was about belief. Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers were able to walk onto the field at Raymond James Stadium as a talented to often under-performing team, and leave with a sense of purpose -- simultaneously making fans believe there might not be any trap games in 2013.
Newton has played the best football of his career over the last three weeks. He is completing 77-percent of his passes, hasn't turned over the ball and has the Panthers' offense averaging 32 points per game. It's the further evolution of Carolina's quarterback into Cam 2.0, divorced for the absurd reality a few weeks ago when some fans suggested he should be benched.
There is no phase of the game you can find fault with, even if you really try to nit pick over the minutia and find some problems. Issues still remain, but the coaching staff is finding ways to scheme around them for the first time under Ron Rivera -- and that, along with trust is why the Panthers are 4-3.
Glass half full
The greatest compliment I can give to Mike Shula comes off sounding back-handed, but it's not intended to be. As an offensive coordinator he's simply doing what's common sense to win football games. This factor shouldn't be overlooked, especially for an organization accustomed to making things needlessly complicated.
Offense under Rob Chudzinski was like building Ikea furniture without the instructions. The end result might have been pretty at times, but too often pieces were left over and the scheme crumbled under the slightest amount of pressure. Shula discovered how to use his players, and more importantly worked out how he could do things the easy way. Much is made of Rivera's guts in going for it on 4th-and-1, but the 40-50 yards of consistent offensive leading up to that critical moment have been largely ignored.
This season we've seen the Panthers simply hand the ball to Mike Tolbert when they need a few hard yards, rather than attempt a pretty but ineffective deep pass or jump ball that would rely too much on unreliable players. Knowing how to use players is most of the battle, and one Carolina has mastered over the last three weeks.
Carolina won a game it should have. The Panthers pressed the advantage thoughout the night and continued to show this isn't the same team that lost to Arizona, even though it's been just a month since that loss occurred. Watching this team play is fun, and the players' enthusiasm is infectious.
Glass half empty
The only teams they've beaten have a combined record of 5-20. That's about it.
Even the most discerning of critics can't help but be a little excited about this team's opportunities down the stretch. The 2013 season is now down to two games, both against the New Orleans Saints. A pair of wins can flip the division on its head, while it wont take much to get a wild card in the NFC, even if the Panthers fall short.
Newton believes the Panthers can win the NFC South, and who we to argue? Outside of Peyton Manning it's hard to find a quarterback in the NFL playing better. Everything could turn in a second, but I believe this team has worked out how to win and has a coaching staff that believes in its players. If those two factors hold it could be a huge year in team history.
Enjoy your win, enjoy your weekend -- the Panthers return to work against the Falcons before you know it, and need to take another step forward in order to take hold of the division.