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Why the Carolina Panthers can win Super Bowl 50

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The last time the Carolina Panthers started a season with five straight wins, they made it to the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.

They lost 32-29 in February 2004, although some that were with the Panthers' organization then still believe the Patriots gained an advantage by illegally taping Carolina practices prior to the title game in Houston.

There are many similarities between that team and this one, beginning with a stingy defense. The 2003 team may have been more complete because of the talent at wide receiver. This team has no consistent targets like Steve Smith and Muhsin Muhammad were then.

But statistically, the current team is doing all the things it typically takes to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Here are five reasons Carolina is a legitimate threat to win Super Bowl 50:

Cam Newton: Most teams that win the Super Bowl do so because the quarterback is playing at a high level. Five of the past six MVPs in the title game, and 27 of the 49 MVPs overall, were quarterbacks. Newton is playing at a high level, particularly when it counts. His Total Quarterback Rating for the fourth quarter is 94.1, which ranks second in the NFL. He had a fourth-quarter rating of 98.9 in Sunday's come-from-behind win at Seattle. As Carolina coach Ron Rivera has said often this season, Newton is playing his most complete football. That at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds he can beat you as a passer and runner gives him the potential to win even when he is not having his best day throwing. Few quarterbacks can say that. Newton's accuracy (55.4 percent) needs to improve, but everything else makes him a candidate for the league MVP.

Defense: This was a top-10 defense without middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (concussion) for 3½ games. It moved up three spots to No. 7 upon his return on Sunday at Seattle. It will only get better when defensive end Charles Johnson returns from a hamstring injury in November and end Jared Allen gets fully implemented into the system after being acquired in a trade three weeks ago. Cornerback Josh Norman is playing so well that Seattle threw to his side only once. If you can eliminate half of the field, you're already ahead. What this defense does best is stop the run to put teams in must-pass situations. It's built a lot like the unit that helped Seattle reach the Super Bowl over the past two years.

Running game: The Panthers have rushed for at least 100 yards in 16 consecutive regular-season games, the second-longest streak in the NFL, behind Seattle with 17. They rank third in the league in rushing yards per game with 132.8. Newton is a big reason for this, but don't discount running back Jonathan Stewart. He showed with 78 yards and two touchdowns on Sunday against Seattle that he can run against a top defense. Teams that win Super Bowls typically have an effective rushing game, and the Panthers have one of the most versatile ones in the league.

Resiliency: I just as easily could have used culture here. In a locker room with leaders such as Kuechly, Newton, Thomas Davis and Greg Olsen, the Panthers have developed a culture and attitude that they can survive tough times. Teams that win Super Bowls typically have to endure rough spots. Carolina had one last season when defensive end Greg Hardy was placed on the commissioner's exempt list. The team got past that and a seven-game winless streak to capture the NFC South for the second straight year. The Panthers have reeled off nine consecutive regular-season wins dating back to last season. That's the longest streak in the NFL. Some of those wins have been like the game on Sunday, when Carolina faced adversity with a 13-point second-half deficit in the loudest venue in the NFL. That the Panthers are undefeated without star wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (knee) and other key pieces for multiple games speaks volumes about their resiliency.

The schedule: Only four of Carolina's 11 remaining games are against teams with a winning record, and two of those are against NFC South rival Atlanta (5-1). The Falcons still have defensive question marks. There is no reason to think the Panthers won't win at least six of those games to take the division for a third straight year. That should allow them to host at least one playoff game. If they can win two of the next three against Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay -- all at home -- they could be in position to host through the NFC Championship Game, provided one of those wins is against the 6-0 Packers. Even if the Panthers have to go on the road in the postseason, they proved at Seattle, which had lost only two games at home the past three years, this team is built to travel -- just like the 2003 team that won two road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl.