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Panthers primed for showdown with Saints

The Carolina Panthers couldn’t help it. They kept watching the scoreboard Sunday to take a peek at the out-of-town games.

Even Panthers coach Ron Rivera, he of the “never look ahead” mindset, kept glancing at the New Orleans-St. Louis score while his own team was involved in a struggle with the New York Jets.

And by day’s end, the Panthers had gotten an early holiday gift. Not only had Carolina beaten the Jets 30-20, but New Orleans had also been upset on the road. That means the Panthers and Saints are now both 10-4, and next Sunday’s home game in Charlotte will be for the NFC South lead.

Suddenly, everything is possible for the Panthers once again. If the Panthers can beat the Saints and win at Atlanta on Dec. 29, they will clinch the division title, a first-round playoff bye and at least one home playoff game.

“Rivera told us that was going to happen,” Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “I didn’t know he was a fortune teller.”

Gross said Rivera had told his downcast team on Monday – just a few hours after a prime-time, 31-13 pasting administered by the Saints on Dec. 8 – exactly what would happen in six days.

“He said keep believing and keep working, because the Saints are going to lose one on the road and we’re going to play them in two weeks for the division title,” Gross said. “That guy believes, man. It’s pretty infectious.”

On Sunday, Carolina once again looked like a team that has now gone 9-1 over its past 10 games. On a chilly, clear afternoon, the Panthers got one big play from each of its three primary units to defeat the Jets.

Offense: a 72-yard touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams.

Defense: a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown by Captain Munnerlyn.

Special teams: A blocked punt by little-known Jason Williams, which came early in the fourth quarter with Carolina clinging to a 16-13 lead and led to a Panthers TD.

The Panthers felt so good in the postgame locker room that Rivera sneaked into a group of reporters interviewing Munnerlyn about his big game, pretended to be a reporter himself and asked a fake question about the importance of practice. Players teased each other and – especially after the Saints lost – got happier and louder.

“You’ve got to keep it loose,” cornerback Drayton Florence said. “We’re just flying around like we used to do in the backyard.”

It certainly wasn’t the Panthers’ prettiest win of the season. The NFL’s No.1 scoring defense gave up 20 points to the very average Jets (6-8). The Panthers had to kick three field goals when drives bogged down, and “Riverboat” Ron finally misfired, going for a fourth-and-2 and missing it.

But style points mean nothing in the NFL these days. Only wins do.

And the Panthers got the victory, helped out by Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes’ relatively mild trash-talking a few days before the game when he pointed out Carolina’s secondary as the team’s weakest link. The secondary took it personally, and Rivera pounced on the quote as bulletin-board material.

Ten wins, as good as that sounds to Panthers fans, ultimately is not enough. Carolina needs at least one more to virtually assure a playoff spot, and two to get the reward of a playoff bye and the first playoff game at home since the 2008 season.

“It’s very big,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “We control our own destiny right now.”

“I wish we could play tomorrow,” wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. “We’ve got the Saints on our minds.”

So does everyone else who cares about the Panthers. It’s not every day you get a second chance to avenge an embarrassment.

Said Munnerlyn of the first Saints game and the one coming up: “We just let Drew Brees dink and dunk us down the field and they made plays. I think it’s going to be a totally different game plan. I think we’re going to go out there. And we’re going to execute. And we’re going to win the game.”

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