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Panthers riding high for third straight Sunday


CHARLOTTE – Two weeks ago with one quarter of football left to play in Philadelphia, the Carolina Panthers were staring at a 3-3 record.

Now they'll enter the second half of the season with a 6-2 record after erasing a 17-point deficit against the Eagles, putting up 36 points against the league's No. 1 defense and now holding the league's No. 1 offense in check.

"We let a couple of games slip away, but there are a lot of teams that would take 6-2 right now. I definitely like our position," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said after the Panthers' 42-28 victory over the Buccaneers. "The sky is the limit."

The Panthers have reason to feel sky-high after what's happened over the last nine quarters. Carolina trailed the reigning Super Bowl champion Eagles 17-0 in Week 7 before putting together a flawless fourth quarter and coming out on top 21-17.

Carolina returned home in Week 8 to take on a Ravens team leading the league in total defense and sacks. The Panthers kept the momentum going with 24 first-half points, and quarterback Cam Newton wasn't sacked a single time in a 36-21 victory.

Then on Sunday, facing a Buccaneers team that had put up more yards than anyone in the league, Tampa had its moments but Carolina held the Buccaneers to 301 yards – 166.6 below their average – in a 42-28 victory.

"Going back to last week, we talked about the number one defense and their ability to get after the passer – and you look at the way our guys hunkered down and held up," head coach Ron Rivera said. "And today coming up against a very dynamic and explosive offense and being able to keep them in front of us, that speaks well to the fact that our guys accepted the challenge.

"That's an impressive thing, and I'm very pleased with that."

The Panthers have plenty of reasons to pat themselves on the back as they embark on the second half of the schedule with a quick turnaround Thursday at a Steelers team that appears to be hitting its stride (Pittsburgh started the season 1-2-1 but has now won four in a row).

Carolina has advanced to the playoffs four of the last five years, but only one of those teams had won at least six games at the halfway mark (the 2015 team started 8-0). To boot, the Panthers are right at the top of the league when it comes to winning games in December under Rivera.

On the other hand, it's not going to be easy. It never is. It wasn't Sunday in the second half even after opening up a 28-point lead, and it won't be easy over the second half of the schedule.

The Panthers' 6-2 record is good only for second place in the NFC South, and Carolina will play two of its final three games against the current leader of the pack. The Saints have won seven in a row since losing their opener to Tampa, and they dropped the Rams to 7-1 with a 45-35 victory Sunday.

The end-of-schedule scenario sure seems more like an opportunity than an obstacle with the way the Panthers are playing, but plenty can and will happen before then.

"We have a ton of confidence right now as a football team, but we realize confidence only lasts as well as you play," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We've just got to keep going – got to keep playing well and keep playing together."

Munnerlyn, in his 10th NFL season, included Davis in a subset of the roster that is as determined as anyone to keep it going.

"We've got a lot of veteran guys who have their eye on the Super Bowl. That's our goal – to win the Super Bowl or bust," Munnerlyn said. "We're trying to put ourselves in position to do that. We've got guys like Pep, Mike (Adams), TD, Ryan Kalil, myself – who are up there in age – who are trying to get to that ultimate prize."

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