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Panthers hope 4-3 mark only beginning


TAMPA, Fla. – Thursday night's victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earned the Panthers a notable milestone.

But from their perspective, they've got miles and miles to go.

"We've put ourselves in the mix. That's great," left tackle Jordan Gross said after Carolina moved above .500 for the first time since 2008. "The guys in this locker room deserve this. The young guys that have never felt this deserve it. Coach Rivera deserves it.

"But the thing that I love is that nobody around here thinks that we've finished anything yet."

The Panthers had played 70 regular season games without enjoying an above-.500 mark, the longest such streak in the NFL entering Week 8. But after scratching and clawing their way to a 4-3 record thanks to a third consecutive win, they're not thinking for one second about resting on their laurels.

They want to see how far they can take this. The 2008 team won the NFC South title and earned a playoff berth.

"We're not big on talking about what we can be," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We know who we are, and you're starting to see it."

The fight the Panthers showed late last season is showing up this year at a much earlier point on the calendar. Expectations were high for the 2012 team, but Carolina wasn't yet ready for prime time, dropping eight of its first 10 games to quickly fall out of playoff contention.

That team easily could have taken a wait-till-next-year approach and mailed it in over the last six games. Instead, the Panthers dug in even deeper and won five of their final six games.

Again this season, the Panthers got off to a disappointing start. But after four games rather than 10, they began to change their fortunes.

"Every week we've continued to fight," tight end Greg Olsen said. "That's really something we've seen from this team even the last couple of years when things didn't seem to be going our way. Eventually, having guys like that on your team pays off."

Head coach Ron Rivera, who has endured as much ridicule as anyone, has kept the faith and has kept finding ways to put his team in better positions to succeed. He's shown more confidence in his team's ability by taking more chances in fourth-and-short situations, for example, and his team has responded in kind.

"At no point did I ever doubt this group of guys," Rivera said. "Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I really thought it was just a matter of time."

The time, it would seem, is now, but it won't be easy. New Orleans has a sizable jumpstart in the division at 5-1, and the presence of powerhouses Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC West means that there may well be just one wildcard spot up for grabs.

On the other hand, there's a lot of football left to be played, and the Panthers are playing about as well an anyone.

"There's a lot of pride. These guys are doing the things that they need to do," Rivera said. "I'm very excited for who they are becoming, but we've got to continue to work hard at it.

"We can't accept being just good; we want to be better than that."

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