Power Rankings: No. 3 Carolina Panthers

A weekly examination of the Panthers’ ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 23 | Last Week: 5 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

Maybe wide receiver Steve Smith was right after a Week 1 loss to Seattle. Maybe the Carolina Panthers and Seahawks will meet again deep in January.

They certainly are on a collision course in ESPN.com's weekly Power Rankings.

The Panthers (9-3) moved up two spots to third after their eighth straight victory, a 27-6 win against Tampa Bay. They trail only the Seahawks (11-1) and Denver Broncos (10-2) in the rankings.

They have a chance to make an even bigger impression on the voters in Sunday night's game at No. 5 New Orleans (9-3), the first of two against the Saints in a three-week period that will go a long way in deciding the NFC South.

That the Panthers have a chance to win the division and possibly face Seattle in the playoffs were unlikely scenarios when they were 1-3 and ranked No. 26.

In my Power Rankings story that week, I actually said this was not a good team and debated whether Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta were turning the NFC South into the worst division in the NFL.

I should have listened to Smith when he said the Panthers were a playoff team after a 12-7 loss to Seattle.

In case you forgot, here's exactly what Smith said: "I stand on this: I think we're going to see them again deep in January. If we continue to play like we're playing, eliminate some of the penalties, eliminate some of the mistakes ... for us to have played that team that is considered by all accounts the best team in the NFL ... if that's the best team, we came down to the [final minutes] and it was a well-fought game.''

The Panthers had a chance to beat the Seahawks (who dismantled New Orleans 34-7 on Monday night) until DeAngelo Williams fumbled at the Seattle 8-yard line late in the fourth quarter.

"Our season is not over,'' Smith said that day. "If that means the season is over, I'm not sure what kind of football y'all are used to around here. That's not a quitting team.''

Asked if Carolina was a playoff team, Smith responded, "I didn't stutter. There was no slur in my speech.''

Hearing you loud and clear now.