Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots:

What it means: That the Panthers (7-3) are a legitimate threat this season not only to make the playoffs, but contend for the NFC title. They have knocked off one of the top teams in the NFC (San Francisco) and AFC (New England) in back-to-back weeks. They have won six straight games and seven of their past eight to stay within one game of NFC South-leading New Orleans. Nobody can say they've piled up wins against patsy teams now.

Stock watch: Quarterback Cam Newton made one of his most impressive runs of the season in the third quarter. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he eluded six defenders and covered 75.8 yards on the ground for a 14-yard gain to keep Carolina's second touchdown drive alive. Newton kept Carolina in this one with his legs. He won it with his arm, completing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left to cap a drive for the biggest win of his career.

Key injury: The Panthers lost their sack leader, Charles Johnson, to a knee injury on the first series of the second half. New England went straight down the field and pulled even at 10-10 on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Johnson's absence was obvious.

Smith vs. Talib: This battle was worth the price of admission. New England shutdown corner Aqib Talib versus Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith was like two heavyweights. Smith got the better of the battle, particularly in the mind-games category. Talib was flagged for a personal-foul penalty after a play to keep Carolina's first touchdown drive alive and for a hold that kept a field-goal drive alive. Smith beat him for a 16-yard catch to set up Carolina's second touchdown.

Missed tackles: No exact count, but the sure-tackling Panthers missed more tackles than normal to turn short plays into big ones.

What's next? The Panthers travel to Miami to face the Dolphins. They are 0-4 against Miami, losing 24-17 in their last meeting, in 2009.