CHARLOTTE – As head coach Ron Rivera gathered his excited team in the locker room following Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Browns, he delivered a simple but so-true message.
"The truth of the matter is, the team that played better down the stretch won this game," Rivera told them.
Rivera was talking about how the Panthers edged the Browns 17-13 with a final 10 minutes that featured an impressive touchdown drive, a clutch defensive stop and some tough-minded running to run out the clock.
But he just as easily could have been talking about his team's season on the whole. This team headed home from a loss to the Vikings three weeks ago just as frigid as single-digit Minnesota, but the Panthers are now 3-0 in December.
Carolina's closing ability, combined with Atlanta's victory at New Orleans on Sunday, has the once 3-8-1 Panthers preparing for a winner-take-all showdown against the Falcons next week.
"We knew Atlanta could take care of business down there, and we were hoping for a nice Christmas gift. That definitely was it," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "Now we have to prepare for a dog fight. We've got to get ready for all-out war. It's win and get in."
Tolbert was a part of the huddle when, after a long third-down run by Jonathan Stewart, quarterback Cam Newton called for the victory formation. While huddled up, players learned that the Falcons had eliminated the Saints from playoff contention, giving the Panthers a chance to become the first team to ever win consecutive NFC South crowns.
"It was great, not only in the huddle but in the stadium," quarterback Cam Newton said. "Bank of America Stadium was rocking, and we needed that today. To hear the fans roar, that's something that gets you going, that gets the energy and momentum on your side.
"And when we found that out, it just put us over the top."
Twelve days ago, it was hard to imagine Newton being anywhere near a football field when his pickup truck flipped in a harrowing accident near the stadium. It was the latest and certainly scariest moment in a difficult season for Newton, but now he'll get the chance to extend the season at the expense of his hometown team no less.
"I feel like we're already prepared for this with all that we've been through this season," Newton said. "Plus, the similarities take us back to last year when we had to win in Atlanta to get that first-round bye and win the division. We're prepared for this moment, and hopefully we will seize it."
Last year, a Panthers team that started 1-3 got things together much earlier than this one, reeling off eight consecutive victories. Still, because of the slow start, they had to win at Atlanta in Week 17 to earn the division title and a first-round playoff bye.
This year's team actually started 2-0 and was 3-2-1 before a six-game losing streak seemed to doom them. But with a three-game winning streak and a little help from the rest of the NFC South, Rivera found himself in position Sunday to use one of his favorite phrases from last season.
"We're relevant," he told the team.
"The NFL is a funny world," tight end Greg Olsen said. "The main thing is that the guys in here never considered ourselves dead. We continued to fight. We knew we had to have some things go our way, but with four games remaining, we needed to win them all to give us any sort of hope.
"We've won three of them. We're one away."