Panthers have that winning vibe

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Left tackle Jordan Gross was on the way to lunch with Jake Delhomme on Saturday, teasing the former Carolina Panthers quarterback about how even as an active player, his hair always seemed perfect. Then, the conversation took a serious turn.

"He said this team was special; this team has a good vibe,'' Gross said after Sunday's 34-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Winning will do that.

The Panthers (5-3) felt they had the potential to be special even before winning their fourth consecutive game and fifth in the past six. Carolina is now within a game of New Orleans in the NFC South after the Saints' 26-20 loss to the New York Jets.

Wide receiver Steve Smith certainly knew what he was talking about after a 12-7 loss to Seattle in the opener, when he predicted Carolina would see the Seahawks again deep in the NFC playoffs.

Few believed Smith then, and he didn't want to discuss that on Sunday. He didn't want to talk at all after this one, choosing to let his teammates who statistically had better games bask in the limelight that he has enjoyed for much of 13 seasons.

But when approached in the hallway outside the locker room about Delhomme's comments, Smith paused and said, "If Jake says it, I believe it."

Right now, these players believe in themselves. Even after playing what was the sloppiest of their five wins, they could feel the vibe Delhomme mentioned, that feeling that has been missing since 2008.

Former general manager Marty Hurney didn't use the word vibe, but he said something was missing in the locker room a year ago when he was released after a 1-5 start.

It's been found.

"This is a dangerous football team," Delhomme said before the game, the first time he'd been at Bank of America Stadium since being released after the 2009 season. "I don't think too many teams in the NFL want to play this football team."

The Panthers aren't just beating teams. They're destroying them. The average score in their five wins is 33.6 to 9.6.

They're doing this with the NFL's top-ranked offense in terms of time of possession -- a position they likely won't give up after a 36:25 to 23:35 edge against Atlanta -- and the league's No. 3-ranked defense.

They're doing it with quarterback Cam Newton, who is doing the little things it takes to win, even when he has an off day as he did on this one.

They're doing it with a relentless running game that began the day ranked eighth in the league and has the potential to get better with the return of Jonathan Stewart, who led the team in rushing (43 yards) in his first game after a year recovering from an ankle injury.

They mostly are doing it because they play as one team, not letting injuries or mistakes turn into disaster as they have for most of the past four years. When they lost starting right guard Chris Scott (sprained knee) and backup Jeff Byers (foot), swing tackle Nate Chandler stepped in and did yeoman's work.

"It's an indication as where we're starting to evolve as a football team," coach Ron Rivera said.

When Carolina was 0-2 and even 1-3, when critics were calling for him to be dismissed, Rivera said the team was close to turning the corner. He said the talent was here to be relevant.

He even mentioned turning this run into a playoff run.

Yes, the "P" word has been mentioned.

But this team believes it can achieve that goal. Delhomme certainly does. He said the talent is here to potentially do more than the 2003 team he took to the Super Bowl, losing on a last-second field goal to the New England Patriots.

He called Newton, who began the season under a cloud of uncertainty regarding his ability to lead and win, the right person to lead Carolina to a Super Bowl.

“He’s 24 years old and let’s see what happens the rest of the year, but I don’t think there’s any doubt this guy can certainly do it," Carolina's all-time leading passer said.

“He is talented and he throws the ball plenty good enough, and his legs are dangerous. That’s what makes him so scary. ... Guys don’t want to hit him. He’s a freak of nature."

Newton wasn't spectacular with his legs on Sunday, but showed a sample of what Delhomme meant on an 8-yard touchdown run that made it 24-10 with nine minutes remaining.

What was most impressive was Newton didn't have to be clicking off completions at a 77.3 rate as he had the past three games for Carolina to win. In many ways, this was one of Carolina's most complete games because there were no stars.

"It's a team, man,'' Stewart said when asked about Newton's subpar performance. "It's not on Cam."

It's not a team that has arrived by any means. None of Carolina's five victims has a winning record. Atlanta (2-6) is a shell of the team that won the NFC South a year ago.

But, as Delhomme said, Carolina is a dangerous team. It is a team that will draw national attention this week when it travels West to face the San Francisco 49ers in what could be the marquee game of the NFC.

"Jake knows," Gross said. "He's been on some really good football teams. He said there's a good vibe to this team. You can't fabricate that. You can't draft that.

"It comes with success."

For the moment, the Panthers can't get enough of that.