"We have to control things better. We have to make sure we play the way we're supposed to so that we give ourselves a better chance to win."
Those are the words of head coach Ron Rivera, but from when? From the Panthers' lone loss of the season two weeks ago? From the Panthers' loss in Detroit the last time they traveled there when Cam Newton was a rookie?
No, those were Rivera's words Sunday after the Panthers knocked off the Lions 27-24 in a matchup of 3-1 teams. And those words actually should sound sweet to Panthers fans even though they seem sour.
Why? Because they signal that this team, now atop the NFC South with a 4-1 record, still has room to improve in significant ways.
The Panthers might have to be better sooner rather than later, with a fellow 4-1 team set to visit Bank of America Stadium for Thursday Night Football. But that game against the Eagles is now one to really look forward to – just like the remainder of the season is.
"It's very satisfying, but it's also very competitive. We've got another team coming in that's playing very well," Rivera said. "We've got to get past this one quickly and start prepping."
The cram session for the Eagles will no doubt include a review of the penalty problems that struck early Sunday. Carolina came into the game as the least penalized team in the NFL but looked just the opposite early, racking up seven penalties before Detroit had even one – seven penalties in 16 or so minutes of game time – to help the Lions claim a 10-3 lead.
The coaches' review might be short though because from there the Panthers committed just four relatively inconsequential penalties after an uber-aggressive approach cost Rivera's team. The coaching staff should spend more time dissecting how for the second consecutive week a big lead gave way to big-time heart palpitations down the stretch.
A week ago, the Panthers saw a 30-16 lead in the fourth quarter disappear before Graham Gano pulled it out with a 48-yard field goal at the final gun. Sunday, a 27-10 lead was trimmed to three and the Panthers were one third-and-long away from giving the Lions the ball back with a chance to win it before a clutch connection between Newton and Kelvin Benjamin.
Two straight weeks of going from sitting on a cushion to squirming in their seats is a bit disconcerting, but it happened against arguably the game's two most clutch quarterbacks: the much celebrated rally troupe of Tom Brady and the Patriots, followed by the underappreciated comeback crew of Matthew Stafford and the Lions.
Problematic? Sure. But if a peck of penalties early and unwelcomed drama that ends with victories over the reigning Super Bowl champions and a team that rarely loses at home is as bad as it gets, then things are pretty good.
In between the sloppy start and the scary finish, the Panthers were something special. Newton carved up one of the NFL's elite secondaries like the turkey featured every Thanksgiving in Detroit, and the Panthers' defensive line made mincemeat of the Stafford's pass protection (including a healthy dash of Peppers).
The schedule doesn't get much harder than back-to-back games at the Patriots and the Lions, but it won't get an easier against an Eagles team whose lone loss is against the NFL's lone unbeaten (the Kansas City Chiefs).
But Newton has clearly turned the corner after a sluggish start to the season in which Carolina still managed to 2-1, and the Panthers clearly have turned the page from a 6-10 season that interrupted a run of three consecutive division titles.
Of course, things can turn on a dime in this league, but as they say, "So far, so good." Or perhaps, more accurately, "So far, good enough."
And there's reason to hope the best is yet to come.
View photos from Carolina's victory over Detroit.