CHARLOTTE – Just like it's difficult to pinpoint a reason for the Panthers' difficulties after byes or more than their share of sluggish Septembers under head coach Ron Rivera, it's tough to nail down why the Panthers thrive when the calendar turns to December.
But in the NFL, that's the most wonderful time of the year to win.
"The one thing we talked about our first year, when I know our record wasn't good at the start of December, was, 'Hey, this is the time,' " offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "No matter where we're at right now, we've got to get used to winning in December because that's what you're going to have to do to get in the postseason.
"We did that the first year and the second year, a little bit too late, but now it's something the guys believe in. They know that even though it might not always start the way you want it to, just keep going."
That resolve showed again Sunday, when the Panthers rallied to a 17-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns that improved them to 3-0 this December. The win sets Carolina up to play for the NFC South championship and a playoff berth versus the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday (4:25 p.m., CBS).
This marks the third time in Rivera's four seasons that a team with just three victories entering December has won at least more three games. Combined with last year's team that entered December with an 8-3 record and went 4-1 the rest of the way to win the division, the Panthers are 14-3 under Rivera in December.
Only the New England Patriots at 15-2 have a better December mark since the beginning of the 2011 season.
"I wish we could be better in the month of October or late September, that's for sure, but a lot of it has to do with the extra time our players put in," Rivera said. "Our guys work and continue to work throughout the season. When practice is over, a lot of guys stay after and do the extra things.
"We seem to get more comfortable as a team, especially this year with how young this team is. We had seven rookies that played very meaningful moments yesterday. They've all developed nicely."
The Panthers obviously didn't make many changes last December, when everything was clicking entering the month, but their other successful Decembers have featured a youth movement that has paid off. Now they've again injected younger players into prominent roles down the stretch, and that combined with the maturation of young players who already had prominent roles is paying dividends.
For the most part, Carolina wanted to feature the young players earlier, but injuries precluded that plan. Cornerback Bene Benwikere, safety Tre Boston and guard Trai Turner were slowed by injuries before coming into their own. Guard Andrew Norwell got his opportunity thanks to injuries sustained by Turner and Amini Silatolu. In the case of wide receiver Philly Brown, the Panthers saw a need to pair him with rookie Kelvin Benjamin and veteran Jerricho Cotchery.
Casualties included veterans Jason Avant at wide receiver and Antoine Cason at cornerback.
"They're all tough decisions, but we had the realization of what we had to do," Rivera said. "The decisions were made looking at certain things. For one, we had to get faster at wide receiver. We felt we had to have an impact guy like Philly Brown on the field a little bit more. In the secondary, the time came to get Josh Norman back on the field. Then as Bene got healthy, we had an opportunity to get him out there and see what he could do. Then with Tre, when he got healthy, he got into it.
"This is a young team that has found its footing. Now we're in a great position."