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Panthers have a chance for a December to remember

After three consecutive white-knuckle weeks, the Carolina Panthers returned to business as unusual Sunday, throttling Tampa Bay 27-6 on another sunny day at Bank of America Stadium.

This 9-3 Panthers team hasn’t lost for nearly two months, so an eighth straight victory Sunday against struggling Tampa Bay was unremarkable by one definition. But it was “business as unusual” in a larger sense, because it has been so long since the Panthers have had the chance to star in their own December to remember.

By this point in the 2010 season, Carolina was 1-11. In 2011, they were 4-8. In 2012, they were 3-9.

Now they enter December right in the middle of the national NFL conversation, with a huge game at New Orleans coming up Sunday night and another against the Saints Dec. 22 in Charlotte. Showtime looms.

And if New Orleans (9-2) loses at Seattle (10-1) Monday night, the Panthers and Saints will enter this critical stretch dead even in the NFC South standings.

Said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, part of the No.1 scoring defense in the NFL: “We’ve got that swagger now. We’ve won eight in a row, and that’s big time. … We could win ’em all, man. We really could. ”

The Panthers had won their previous three games by a total of nine points coming into Sunday. At first, Tampa Bay looked like it would provide another test of Carolina’s resolve.

Tampa Bay led 3-0 early and only trailed the Panthers 7-6 early in the second quarter. But then, on third-and-goal from the Carolina 4, former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon fumbled under pressure from the Panthers’ defensive line and lost the ball.

The Panthers would not allow another point and would score 20 more of their own, eventually turning the game into a rout.

The game’s most significant play was this: Head coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera gambled again on fourth-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 1 late in the first half. He got it on a Cam Newton dive in which Newton broke the plane of the goal line a half-second before fumbling. The Panthers never looked back.

Rivera called the win “cautiously efficient,” which was correct. The Panthers weren’t perfect, but they played well enough to never be in serious danger. In many ways, for Panthers fans used to sweating it out until deep in the fourth quarter, Sunday was a relief.

Newton had two interceptions he described as “nasty.” But he also broke a 56-yard run and threw touchdown passes to Ted Ginn and Brandon LaFell. It was a great weekend for Newton overall, as Auburn’s upset over Alabama prompted him to begin his postgame press conference: “War Eagle. War Eagle. War dang Eagle!”

“People want to keep pointing at me,” Newton said of the Panthers’ win streak. “But the truth of the matter is, our defense is playing lights out.”

The Panthers have given up only 13.1 points per game, easily the NFL’s best. But New Orleans, with quarterback Drew Brees leading one of the league’s best offenses, will test that defense like it has not been tested all season. The NFL moved that game into Sunday night prime time for good reason.

One thing is now certain: Carolina clinched its first winning season since 2008 on Sunday and only its fifth in the franchise’s 19 seasons. Even losses in the final four games would not change that.

And the Panthers now have enough of a lead in the NFC playoff race that even a 2-2 finish in the final four games should be enough to guarantee the team’s first playoff appearance in five seasons.

“I’ve always felt we had a pretty talented group here,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. “The difference has been the maturity. It’s been sort of a culmination of the last two seasons, of finally saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”

But of course, what has happened so far isn’t enough. The Panthers are playing so well now that they – and their fans – are not setting any limits.

Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Observer in July 2012, promising that the Panthers would win that season’s Super Bowl. Instead, they finished 7-9.

On Sunday, I asked Kalil whether he had simply made the right prediction a year too soon.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Kalil said with a smile. “It’s a different season. But I think guys are hungry to win football games, we’re making it a habit, and we’ve just got to keep this thing rolling.”

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