Panthers are one win away from clinching their fourth playoff appearance in five seasons.

Under head coach Ron Rivera the franchise is becoming a perennial winner. If they can get past Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday they will get one step closer to their ultimate goal which is to win the Super Bowl. Rivera posts a record of 66-51-1, including a 3-3 post season record, and three NFC South titles since he took the reins as head coach in 2011. He was coming in after Panthers finished dead last in the NFL at 2-14.

“We’ve developed a consistent winner. Last year was a little bit different unfortunately but being able to bounce back and put ourselves in position…it means we’re playing quality football,” Rivera said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Inside that locker room there’s a group of young men that want to win. They put a lot on the line and worked really hard at getting where we are today.”

While Panthers (10-4) host Buccaneers (4-10) they anticipate a competitive match up. If Monday night is any indication Buccaneers will be looking to spoil Panthers season as they nearly took Atlanta Falcons (9-5) to overtime in a 24-21 loss that night.

“Tampa is not going to come in and lay down, I promise you that much,” Rivera said. “They have a lot of pride, they’re coming to play hard…we’ve got to answer their challenge.”

Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston thrown for three touchdowns and 299 yards in Monday’s loss. With no interceptions on the night he accumulated his highest quarterback rating of the season at 130.5.

“Obviously we are out of the playoff picture but we still have a lot of play for,” Winston said during Thursday’s press conference. “Our season isn’t over, especially not to me [and] to those guys in that locker room.”

With this being a divisional game Buccaneers will pose as a tougher challenge against Panthers than they have for most teams this season. However, tight end Ed Dickson says it’s still up to Panthers to take advantage of their opportunity to lock up a playoff spot by winning.

“We control the narrative. We control how we play, how we respond to things, how we come out in our house in front of our fans,” Dickson told reporters Thursday.

As Cam Newton came into the season coming off shoulder surgery he’s playing his best football right now, Rivera said.

“I think he’s hitting his stride right now,” Rivera said.

Throughout the season Newton had limited reps in mini camp, training camp and in practices which limited opportunities for him to get comfortable with the younger talent Panthers brought in this season. Progressing through the season he’s finally found his groove.

The first half of the season Newton completed 63 percent of his passes but was sacked 22 times and thrown 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions accumulating a quarterback rating of 79.1. The past six games Newton has a quarterback rating of 95.2 throwing 11 touchdowns to only one interception. He’s averaging 7.2 yards per carry with 123 more rushing yards the past six games compared to his first eight performances where he averaged 4.3 per carry running for a total of 255 yards on the ground.

With the Panthers offense progressing in the later portion of the season the team is peaking at the right time, Greg Olsen told reporters Thursday.

“Every year you can isolate different parts of the season and they’re like entirely different stories. The idea is to always be playing your best football late,” Olsen said. “For the most part…the last few years we’ve been able to progressively get better as the seasons gone on. I think that’s the sign of a good team, a disciplined team, a well coached team.”

This season the team went through a rash of injuries, trading Kelvin Benjamin and many young players on the offense filling in and trying to find their roles. There were times where the defense constantly had to carry the offense and that’s when Newton vowed the team’s offense would get better. Showing flashes against New England Patriots, week four, and again in Detroit, week five, against the Lions the Panthers have been consistently putting on good offensive showings since week nine when they’ve got their running game going again. With the team picking up steam in the month of December the timing couldn’t be better for Olsen.

“Its nice to see all that come together here as we get into the critical time of the year,” Olsen said.

By Gino Terrell

This article was originally published in MCXV December 22, 2017.

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