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Carolina Panthers prove games still matter to them

It would be easy to say none of this matters now for the Carolina Panthers.

The playoffs went bust a few weeks ago, there's no general manager and to this point, there has been no promise that head coach Ron Rivera will return for a third season.

But it does matter. It has to matter for the Panthers.

Maybe that says more about Rivera, his staff and what next year could be than whether the Panthers finish 6-10 or 7-9 next Sunday in New Orleans.

The easy way out would have been to surrender a few weeks back, play out the string with no real sense of urgency and bull-rush into the offseason.

Instead, the Panthers have played with a sense of purpose and a minimum of mistakes. The result is four wins in five games and a feel-good vibe that had been buried under a 2-8 start.

Three of the recent wins have come against Philadelphia, San Diego and Oakland, the equivalent of ACC teams in an SEC world. But the Panthers also beat Atlanta, something only one other team has done this season.

There was nothing elegant about the Panthers' 17-6 victory over Oakland Sunday in Bank of America Stadium unless you like smothering defense and an epidemic of personal foul penalties. It felt like a maddening rush-hour drive home, disrupted by construction work, stop and go buses and drivers who make you think things you shouldn't think about anybody.

It looked like me trying to dance.

But it was the kind of game the Panthers could have kicked away. They have an earlier body of work to suggest a potential meltdown. Instead, with an offensive line patched together with some players the coaches might not have recognized and a defense built around a strong line and an emerging star in linebacker Luke Kuechly, the Panthers went into Christmas Eve with their first three-game winning streak in three years.

"Why are we playing so hard? (Some people say) we have nothing to play for. We play for the men in this room. We're playing for this organization. We're playing for our coaches. And we play for these fans," linebacker Thomas Davis said.

"So don't tell us we don't have anything to play for. We're going to go out there and try to get the wins we can week in and week out, whatever the situation is. We're just trying to take this momentum into next season."

Why are the Panthers better now than they were eight weeks ago?

Cam Newton has been exceptional. Kuechly has become the best player on an increasingly good defense. They've avoided big mistakes.

They're doing it the hard way.

They're playing without running back Jonathan Stewart, center Geoff Hangartner and linebacker James Anderson, not to mention the other major players who fell away earlier in the season. They had to rely Sunday on Thomas Austin on the offensive line when Amini Silatolu was hurt on the game's second play, and cornerback James Dockery, who, like Austin, wasn't on the roster in mid-October.

Successful teams are able to play to their strengths, and that's what the Panthers did against the Raiders. They were able to throw downfield with some success in the first half when they built a 14-3 lead and then they relied on their defense to win the game from there.

Granted, the Raiders were forced to use back-up quarterback Matt Leinart when Carson Palmer was turned into a pretzel on a vicious hit by Greg Hardy in the first quarter. Hardy earned a personal foul penalty for the hit, one of several plays that highlighted the fuzzy line between protecting player safety and maintaining the game's violent nature.

The Panthers aren't good enough that their victories can be judged by style points. But they're good enough now that it won't be a shock if they win at New Orleans next week. If it seemed earlier in the season the Panthers were waiting for something bad to happen, they are more inclined now to believe they can make something good happen.

"(Our confidence) is much different, much better," receiver Louis Murphy said. "We've learned how to win and pull out wins at the end."

It's natural to play the what-if game now. What if the Panthers had held on to double-digit fourth-quarter leads against Chicago and Tampa Bay? What if Newton had completed the fourth-down pass to Ben Hartsock at the end of the Seattle game?

There's no value in that. The Panthers will be watching the playoffs from wherever they spend the offseason. The view is already better than it might have been.

"A lot of questions have been, what are we playing for this year?" Newton said. "It's a respect thing. It's pride.

"Every single person that's on this roster can say I'm not quitter. I'm finishing and I'm setting up for something. ... We're playing for hope.

"Is it too late? Some may say that but I'm a part of teammates that aren't quitters, and I'm proud to say that."

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