Panthers must get through short week

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers are close to becoming more than an afterthought in the NFL again, but they must get through a short week in order to get there.

Left tackle Jordan Gross didn't waste much time celebrating Sunday's 30-15 victory over the St. Louis Rams, the second straight win and third in four games for the Panthers (3-3) after an 0-2 start.

He understands the importance of keeping this streak alive in Thursday night's game at Tampa Bay, which is 0-6 after Sunday's loss to NFC South rival Atlanta.

"I'm going to have to get in the cold tub right now to start recovering, because in four days we will be right back on the field," Gross said.

Head coach Ron Rivera and a few of his assistants actually began breaking down film of the Buccaneers last Thursday night so they'd be ready for players on Monday morning.

As much of an imposition as a Thursday night game is for teams around the league, the Panthers are excited about having the opportunity to get above .500 for the first time since 2008 in front of a national audience.

They are playing with more confidence than they have at any point under their third-year coach, whose first two teams started 1-5.

That they are facing a Tampa Bay team that beat them twice last season adds extra motivation -- even if the Bucs are winless.

"I don't want to stunt any growth for us right now," said Cam Newton, coming off consecutive passer ratings of 143.4 and 136.3, that is the best two-game stretch of any quarterback in the NFL this season. "We've just got to continuously have the mentality to be 1-0 each and every week.

"Our preparation leading up to this week is to put ourselves into a situation where we can be 4-3 on Thursday."

The Panthers are hungry. They aren't satisfied with winning two in a row or three out of four.

"I want to win another one," defensive end Greg Hardy said after Sunday's game. "I'm not even happy yet."

Gross talked of the Panthers becoming relevant and players understanding this opportunity. With a few more wins, they will become more than relevant and they will become legitimate playoff contenders.

That makes the short week even more vital. Carolina can't afford a letdown against a Tampa team that released franchise quarterback Josh Freeman a few weeks ago, that may have lost star running back Doug Martin for this game to a shoulder injury, that has head coach Greg Schiano under fire.

The Panthers were in similar distress at 0-2 and even 1-3, but have seen first-hand how a few wins can change attitudes and build confidence.

They don't want to give Tampa Bay confidence.

"We've got a quick turnaround, so we've got to let this one go and get ready for Thursday night," said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown on St. Louis' first play.

Because another win puts them closer to relevance.