Before they dive into what quarterback Cam Newton called “the meat of our schedule,” the Carolina Panthers first had to finish off the appetizers.
Having taken care of that, they’re about to find out if they can handle the main course.
Fresh from a convincing 31-13 win against Tampa Bay on Thursday that gave the Panthers their first winning record in five years, Rivera heard about cynics questioning the quality of the opposition during the three-game, 12-day winning streak.
The three teams the Panthers (4-3) beat – Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay – are a combined 4-16. Throw in the Giants – 38-0 losers at Carolina in Week 3 – and the Panthers’ four victories have come against teams that have combined for a 5-22 record.
Rivera said he and his players have tuned out the noise.
“It doesn’t matter what others think because the truth of the matter is how we feel about ourselves, and we feel pretty good about who we are,” Rivera said.
“Will we be tested down the line? Absolutely. Every week’s a test,” Rivera added. “In this league when you win a football game, it’s a big deal. No matter when, where, how – a win is a win is a win.”
The Panthers, who had the toughest-rated schedule at the beginning of the season, are about to see the degree of difficulty increase.
Among their four November opponents, only NFC South rival Atlanta (2-4) has a losing record – and all the Falcons have done is make the playoffs in four of five seasons under coach Mike Smith.
After meeting the Falcons in Charlotte, the Panthers go on the road against San Francisco (5-2), which played in the Super Bowl last season. The following Monday night they host New England, a perennial playoff team off to a 5-2 start despite a green receiving corps.
The Panthers wrap up their November schedule at Miami, which is 3-3 heading into Sunday’s game against the Patriots.
Rivera conceded “it will be a tough stretch,” but said he’s focused on the Falcons.
“It’s going to be an important one for us because it’s a division game,” he said. “They want to get themselves in position. Obviously, we want to keep them out of position because we want to stay in position.”
The Panthers have been winning with a strong defense and a balanced offensive attack paced by Newton, in the midst of the most efficient three-game stretch of his career. Newton has completed 77 percent of his passes during the win streak for 647 yards and six touchdowns.
He also has taken care of the ball. Newton does not have a turnover over the past three games; neither do the Panthers.
Meanwhile, the defense has been suffocating, particularly early in games.
The Panthers are the second team since at least 1935 to go through its first seven games without giving up a first-half touchdown, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Denver Broncos accomplished the feat in 2006.
Tampa Bay kicker Rian Lindell’s 47-yard field goal Thursday marked the first points the Panthers have allowed in the first quarter all season.
The Panthers have led at halftime in every game, and took a 7-0 lead against the Bucs with an impressive scoring drive after Tampa Bay punted on its opening possession.
“Our defense went three-and-out and then we get the ball, it’s kind of how you drew it up,” said tight end Greg Olsen, whose 1-yard touchdown catch capped the drive. “When teams defer (their choice to the second half when winning the coin toss), it’s kind of what you’re looking for. We took that opening offense drive down, we were able to capitalize and score there and set the tone for the rest of the game.”
Defensive end Greg Hardy said the Panthers’ third-ranked defense still has room to improve.
“We feel like we are headed toward a serious playoff defense,” Hardy said. “I feel like we’re playing up to our potential, but there is so much potential in the (locker) room and in the building. We’re not even close.”
Over the next month, the Panthers will learn how close they are.
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