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For Carolina Panthers, the ‘P’ word is now a real possibility

The “P” word has not been uttered with any seriousness around the Carolina Panthers for the past five years.

It has been said with the mock seriousness of the Jim Mora variety plenty of times: “Playoffs?! You kidding me?! Playoffs?!”

But now it can be talked about as a possibility for the Panthers, who won their third straight game Thursday night, barging past Tampa Bay 31-13.

That sturdy win moved the Panthers to 4-3 – the first time they’ve been over the .500 mark since late in the 2008 season, when they last made the playoffs. If the season ended today, that 4-3 record would put Carolina in the tiebreaker mix with Detroit and Green Bay for the sixth and final NFC playoff spot.

Of course, the season doesn’t end today. The Panthers have nine more games, and the schedule is about to get as tough as a $2 steak.

Four teams that played in the NFL’s 2012 conference championship games. Carolina plays three of them in its first three games of November.

Atlanta. San Francisco. New England. If the Panthers are better than 5-5 after that three-game stretch concludes, they’ve really got something.

Anything seems possible at the moment. First and foremost, the defense has ensured Carolina stays in every game. The Panthers haven’t allowed a first-half TD all season, which is remarkable. And with good news on defensive end Charles Johnson Friday – his groin injury was just a strain – that defense should remain in top form.

Said defensive end Greg Hardy: “We feel like we are headed toward a serious playoff defense. ... There is so much potential in the room and in the building.”

When you have a solid defense and a hot quarterback, you’re about 80 percent of the way there in the NFL. And Cam Newton is coming off what I believe is the best three-game stretch of his career.

Newton has been near-perfect during this three-game win streak – six passing touchdowns, two rushing TDs, no turnovers, a 77.3 completion percentage and a continued grasp of the fact that the Panthers are better when he doesn’t try to do it all himself.

Said Newton after Thursday night’s game: “If you want to solely say I’m playing great, it also means that a lot of other guys are playing great behind the scenes. This is not a one-man show. I understand that, and I will not have that type of attitude.”

The Panthers get some time off this weekend before returning to work. They know they still have some problems, but the problems seem a lot more manageable at 4-3 than they did at 1-3.

“Instead of a thousand things to fix,” Hardy said, “it’s only like 10 or 11 things to fix.”

The receivers are still dropping too many balls. There are still occasional coverage breakdowns on defense. Newton sometimes takes a sack when he shouldn’t.

But the overall product is good. The Panthers have won their four games this season by 38, 25, 18 and 15 points. It’s not their fault that those wins have been against bad teams – you can only play the team put in front of you.

Carolina’s plus-74 net point differential is fourth-best in the NFL, and the three teams with better point differentials (Denver, Kansas City and Seattle) are all 6-1 or better.

That brings me to my final point: Winning big is great. It lets your fans and players relax in the fourth quarter.

But it’s not going to happen forever. The Panthers still have a horrible record under third-year coach Ron Rivera in close games – 2-14 in those decided by seven or fewer points. That stat hasn’t come up much lately because they’ve been winning so big.

It will rear its head again, though. Atlanta is 2-4 but still dangerous. San Francisco and New England are both capable of Super Bowl runs.

Sometime soon, the Panthers are going to have to win a close one against a good team. That’s the next big step to make everyone really, truly believe that the dark ages are over.

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