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Watch out, NFL: Carolina Panthers may actually become relevant

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

Poll

Poll: Which performance did you like the most in the Carolina Panthers' 30-15 win over the St. Louis Rams?

As the Carolina Panthers won another game Sunday – blasting the St. Louis Rams 30-15 in an entertaining contest with pro wrestling overtones – they moved toward rare air for the franchise.

Let offensive tackle Jordan Gross provide the correct word.

“Relevance,” Gross said. “We could actually be relevant.”

The Panthers haven't been over .500 during an NFL regular season since 2008, back when John Fox was the coach and Jake Delhomme was the quarterback. Then came the 20-point playoff loss to Arizona and four long seasons of losing.

“I was there for all of that,” Gross said. “So I know what an opportunity we have now. I hope the guys realize it.”

The Panthers moved to 3-3 by beating St. Louis, and on Thursday all they have to do is defeat 0-6 Tampa Bay to get to 4-3. For the first time in nearly five years, the Panthers would not be under water or treading water.

They would be floating.

That’s still nowhere near the playoffs, of course. But Carolina would at least no longer be an afterthought in every national conversation about the NFL.

The Panthers won at home by playing well most of the time and fixing things quickly when they messed up. They were far more composed than the Rams, who were called for five personal-foul penalties, had one player ejected and should have had another.

Safety Mike Mitchell, who would be voted “Panther Most Likely To Have a Personal Foul Called On Him,” instead avoided one while getting into repeated confrontations with St. Louis offensive guard Harvey Dahl (No.62), who got two of them.

Said Mitchell: “They wanted to try to pick a fight with us. But they had four quarters to do that so waiting until the last couple of minutes – it’s a little late for that. … When he (Dahl) came back at me again, for the third time, that’s when I was like, ‘C’mon, dude, you’re a joke. We’re blowing your team out. Get out of our face.’”

The Panthers led for 59 minutes and 39 seconds, following Captain Munnerlyn’s pick-six interception return 21 seconds into the game. Cam Newton had a second straight nearly perfect game, completing 15 of 17 passes for 204 yards – and one of the two incompletions was a drop.

I have missed Steve Smith going off on an opposing cornerback – it used to happen about every third week – and he did so against the Rams’ Janoris Jenkins. Smith’s 19-yard touchdown, ensuing dance and postgame diatribe directed at Jenkins and his highly personal trash talk all had the feel of Steve Smith circa 2005.

Carolina's cornerbacks seemed more vulnerable – especially Josh Thomas – but the defense made enough big plays to only allow the Rams 13 points (two more came on a safety) and score seven itself. That’s a winning performance anytime.

The Panthers offense, after all the fits and starts against Arizona, has at least temporarily found itself. Kicker Graham Gano has had a Pro Bowl start.

The most promising sign, though, might have been the team’s composure. It would be easy to get drawn into an eye-for-an-eye personal foul game with the Rams, who have a team-wide reputation for toughness bordering on nastiness.

“I played on Jeff Fisher teams in Tennessee,” Panthers tight end Ben Hartsock said. “He’s a tough guy. That’s what his teams do. I played for Ohio State, and this felt like an old Ohio State-Michigan game – a backyard brawl.”

Hartsock had one of the funniest moments after the biggest fight, which resulted in the ejection of Rams defensive end Chris Long.

“I was like the baseball ump who tosses a guy,” said Hartsock, who lifted his finger to the air and “threw” Long out of the game – twice. “I wasn't involved in the fight – I just came in for the icing on the cake.”

The icing on the cake for these Panthers would be to keep winning. They have yet to play an NFC South game. Six of their final 10 will be against divisional foes. Although Tampa Bay is 0-6, the Bucs are not without weapon. Wide receiver Vincent Jackson is one of the best; he was targeted an incredible 22 times Sunday by rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.

If the playoffs started today, the Panthers would be a half-game out of the race for the wild card. That’s not bad, at least not compared to what it has been recently. Keep winning, and suddenly everyone in the Carolinas will remember what it feels like to have a nationally relevant NFL team – one that is the source of pride instead of punchlines.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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