Panthers set sights on Saints -- and beyond

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton leaned into the microphone on Sunday after leading the Carolina Panthers to a franchise-record eighth straight victory and whispered, "War Eagle."

Then he did it again.

And again.

"War dang Eagle!" the Carolina quarterback said, in what one could only hope was his final moment of gloating about Auburn's dramatic victory against top-ranked Alabama before moving on to the Panthers' 27-6 win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Panthers have a pretty big game for the NFC South lead coming up next Sunday night in New Orleans, but you couldn't tell it the way Newton kept referencing his alma mater's upset victory.

You really couldn't tell it by the demeanor of anybody in the locker room. This team is focused on more than the New Orleans Saints and a division title.

"We know it will be a challenge," cornerback Drayton Florence said of the prime-time game against the Saints (9-2), who have a half-game lead over Carolina (9-3) heading into their Monday night game at Seattle. "But they're just in our way to get to that bowl."

That would be the Super Bowl.

Yes, the Panthers are becoming serious contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, which would have been hard to imagine when they were 1-3.

That they handily defeated the Buccaneers (3-9), winners of three straight, despite two interceptions from Newton shows just how focused they are.

And confident.

"There's no roof," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "[Just] the sky. We're going up. We're going up. Every person on this team, every person in this building, has the same mentality right now. I feel like it's contagious. They feel like they can't be beat."

There is a sense of invincibility building here, but it's not something anybody takes for granted. After going 2-14, 6-10 and 7-9 the past three seasons, there's more of an appreciation for what is taking place and what it has taken to make it happen.

"All the work we put in, the blood and sweat and tears … trying to figure out how to win, was for this," said Hardy, who had a sack and two quarterback hurries against Tampa Bay. "We've had this talent for years. We just didn't have the 'want to.' Now it's there."

Sunday's win was an example of how deep the talent is. Sack leader Charles Johnson (knee) missed his second straight start, but the defense held the Bucs to two field goals and shut out its opponent in the second half for the third time in four games.

Leading rusher DeAngelo Williams sat out with a quadriceps injury, yet the Panthers rushed for 163 yards behind Newton, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart.

They won with the same formula that has gotten them this far. Newton dove for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth down and passed for two more scores. The defense shut down the Buccaneers' running game (66 yards) and then came down on quarterback Mike Glennon for five sacks.

"Efficient," coach Ron Rivera said of the effort.

Rivera expects to have both Johnson and Williams back for the Saints game, but even he's more interested in long term because he understands the potential this team has.

"It is very satisfying because of where we came from," the third-year coach said of the winning streak. "As I have said before, it's been a hard four years for a lot of guys in that locker room. It is very satisfying to be on a nice little roll, but again there is a lot of work to do."

That begins with preparation for the first of two games against New Orleans during a three-game stretch that likely will decide the division title and a first-round bye for the playoffs, based on the way things are going in the other divisions.

"Ready, man," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "It's a game all of y'all [media] have been waiting for. It's a game y'all have been getting us to talk about. Now it's here. The showdown. I'm excited for it. It's prime-time football again."

But Munnerlyn isn't any more excited to talk about the Saints than he was the Buccaneers a week ago.

"Not really," he said. "It's just the next game."

That's a theme that won't go away.

"It's great to be a part of," Newton said of the winning streak. "But we're not done yet. I don't think there is a sense of entitlement in the locker room with these guys. Everyone continues to know what we have to do in the upcoming weeks, starting off with this."

Newton leaned back into the microphone. You got it. He wasn't done gloating.

"Did I say War Eagle?" asked Newton, who led Auburn to the national championship in 2010. "War Eagle!"