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Schedule will teach us about these Carolina Panthers

We wondered how the Carolina Panthers would perform in a close game. By their recent standards, Sunday’s game was close.

The Panthers led Atlanta 14-10 late in the third quarter and, after a 55-yard field goal from Graham Gano, 17-10 going into the fourth.

Then Cam Newton ran 8 yards for a touchdown, cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted Matt Ryan and returned the ball 38 yards for a touchdown and Gano kicked a 20-yard field goal. The Panthers won 34-10.

The warm-ups complete, Carolina’s schedule becomes compelling. The Panthers play at San Francisco Sunday, and for the first time since Minnesota on Oct. 13, they’ll be underdogs.

They then play a Monday night game at home against New England. Then they play at Miami. And they get New Orleans twice in the season’s final four weeks.

The 4:05 game at San Francisco is one of the NFL’s rare high-profile match-ups next week, a week that offers Washington-Minnesota on Thursday night and Miami-Tampa Bay on Monday.

Carolina has won four straight, each by double figures. The average margin of victory in those four games is 20.2 points. The Panthers are 5-3 and one game back in the NFC South.

The 49ers, meanwhile, are the 49ers. They’ve won five straight, each by double figures. The average margin of victory in those five games is 22.6 points. They’re 6-2.

“It’s fun being in the mix of it,” Panthers tackle Jordan Gross says about playing a game that will attract national attention. “But once the game starts all that kind of fades away. I’m excited because there’s a buzz out there.”

Says Carolina head coach Ron Rivera: “It really is a great opportunity because this is a very good football team we’re going to play. They are the defending NFL champs. They played in the Super Bowl last year. They’ve got a lot of good football players.”

Carolina’s four-game winning streak has come against teams with losing records. The fault isn’t theirs; you play the teams the league tells you to, and the Panthers have performed beautifully.

“It’s a big game,” says Panthers receiver Steve Smith. “Beating the Falcons was the biggest game this week and we’ve done that so now were going to move on and play San Francisco and they’re the biggest game and absolutely nothing could be bigger.

“The one thing is you can’t make the game so much bigger that you panic or you overthink it. You process and you understand. And it’s going to be a high profile.”

When was the last time the Panthers participated in a high profile game? When you go 2-14 (2010) and start 1-5 (2011) and 1-6 (2012) the only high-profile games you see are on your large, flat-screen TV.

Doesn’t the quality of the opponent, and the winning streaks, make the game more interesting for you?

“This game is interesting every time you go out there,” says Smith. “You’re missing it. Every week is interesting. I get to go to the stadium and walk out there and people are wearing my jersey and screaming my number and that’s interesting, that’s fun.

“You can’t put too much emotion or more stock in it because we’re going to San Francisco. This game is going to come and go. Every opportunity you get to play this game is going to be a great time. You may get more publicity (against the 49ers) and that’s all it is – more publicity.”

For fans, the dynamic will be different. They’ve enjoyed watching their team beat the bottom-feeders.

But will what worked against the Vikings, Rams, Buccaneers and Falcons work against the 49ers? Will Cam Newton be the best young mobile quarterback on the field, or will San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, who was Newton’s roommate at the NFL Scouting Combine?

The game will be the most publicized the Panthers have played since 2008, when they last had a winning record, when they last went to the playoffs and when fans outside the Carolinas last cared about the team.

If players are telling the truth, perhaps the 49ers are business as usual.

But for Panthers fans the dynamic is different. They’ve invested their emotion and perhaps their money through four straight losing seasons.

San Francisco and all the possibilities it offers – anticipation, excitement, the Panthers high on the NFL marquee in bright lights, with an opportunity to play and perhaps beat a good team – is payback.

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