Panthers back in control of destiny

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who preaches never to look past what's in front of you, found himself looking at the scoreboard late in Sunday night's 30-20 victory over the New York Jets.

Not just once, either.

"Unfortunately, a few times too many," Rivera said with almost an embarrassed look. "To be honest with you, I did get distracted a couple of times."

What he saw was New Orleans (10-4) losing at St. Louis 27-16, making next Sunday's rematch against his Panthers (10-4) at Bank of America Stadium even bigger.

You can't blame him.

The Panthers now control their destiny in the NFC South. A win at home against a New Orleans team that embarrassed them 31-13 a week ago on prime-time television and a win the following week at Atlanta would give them the division championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

All the woe-is-me talk a week ago suddenly has turned into optimism.

"You can always judge a champion by how they respond," cornerback Drayton Florence said. "We got knocked on our butts last week. We came back and responded."

What this game proved: The Panthers are up to challenges -- on many levels.

Carolina answered the challenge of not letting a loss to New Orleans turn into another.

It answered the challenge that Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes issued earlier in the week, when he said the secondary was the weak link to the league's second-ranked defense.

Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, in particular, answered in a big way, sacking Jets quarterback Geno Smith twice -- he had only two sacks his entire career prior to that -- and returned a fourth-quarter interception 41 yards for a touchdown to make it 30-13 with 8:17 to play.

He then rubbed it in the Jets' faces, imitating an airplane crash in the end zone that earned him a 15-yard penalty and likely a sizable fine from the league later in the week.

It was worth it, though.

As Florence said, you have to have fun when you're in Carolina's position because these situations don't happen every day. And if that means Rivera letting down his guard and checking out the scoreboard, that's OK.

He has earned as much.

"It's that time of the year," Florence said.

Few gave the Panthers a chance to be in this position after a 1-3 start. Many probably doubted it after the loss to New Orleans in which the defense gave up four touchdown passes after surrendering no more than two scores in a game all season.

That's why Rivera wasn't all that upset about Munnerlyn's celebration.

"It was huge for our secondary," he said. "For them to play the way they did and play very physical, that is going to be one of the keywords there -- physical."

A week ago, the Panthers weren't physical with New Orleans defenders, allowing them to roam in the secondary almost as though they were uncovered.

But this wasn't a game decided by Munnerlyn or the secondary. This game in many ways was as much a team victory as any this season. Linebacker Jason Williams, a player you seldom hear mentioned, blocked the team's first punt of the season to set up Mike Tolbert's 1-yard touchdown run with Carolina nursing a 16-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Brandon LaFell threw a key block allowing running back DeAngelo Williams to complete a 72-yard touchdown catch with the score tied 6-6 late in the first half. Williams also added 81 yards rushing against the league's second best run defense.

Quarterback Cam Newton didn't have a spectacular day, but he had a passer rating of 118.9 that kept the offense moving.

It's the type of effort most would be pleased with next weekend against a New Orleans team struggling on the road.

"We don't have to do anything revolutionary," tight end Greg Olsen said.

This is a team that remains extremely hungry. That's why the Panthers allowed themselves moments to check out the scoreboard, why they laughed at the mention of Rivera doing it.

Munnerlyn set the tone.

"They challenge one of us, they challenge us all," he said. "That was the mantra going in."

The Panthers never really lost confidence with the loss at New Orleans, understanding the Saints have blown out a lot of teams at the Superdome.

But, Carolina still has a chip on its shoulders.

"A very big chip," said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had one of Carolina's four sacks. "Not as big as the one I normally have, but a big one. I don't like losing ... to anyone."

Indeed, the Panthers' only loss in their past 10 games is to the Saints. And with another win comfortably at hand against the Jets on Sunday, Rivera allowed himself to look at the big screen.

"We control our own destiny right now," Newton said. "We've just got to continue to do things that we've been doing up until this point."