Give Rivera credit for Panthers' turnaround

Ron Rivera, whom Cam Newton called "the backbone of this team," has the Panthers above .500. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- Minus the billboards that were prominent in the Tampa area on Thursday, it was only a month ago Carolina fans were calling for Panthers coach Ron Rivera to be fired in the way Buccaneers' fans are now calling for Greg Schiano's exit.

But give Rivera credit. He believed in this team, even when it was 1-3. He insisted the Panthers were close to turning the corner and playing winning football.

Now we're seeing what he meant.

The Panthers (4-3) have a winning record for the first time since 2008. The NFL's longest active streak of not being above .500, and fourth-longest over the past 25 years, ended with a workmanlike 31-13 victory against Tampa Bay.

Not that a win over an 0-7 team should be cause for celebration. Teams that expect to win, as the Panthers apparently now do, should expect to beat opponents when they are down.

But because of the somewhat historical significance of this, because it ended 70 consecutive games of Carolina sloshing around at .500 or worse, the win is significant.

"It feels great to put three wins together and come back and show people we are relevant," running back DeAngelo Williams said.

Three straight wins and four in five games have made Carolina relevant to this season as it pertains to potential playoff contenders. The dominating fashion in which the wins have come, even against the lowly likes of the New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams and Buccaneers, should turn a few heads.

"It's been a long time since we've been in this position," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We've put ourselves in the mix."

As much as people wanted to blame Rivera when things were looking bleak, he deserves credit now.

"He's the backbone of this team, by default or by popular demand," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We have full faith in everything he says and everything he does."

Rivera's belief in his quarterback was key, and Newton is making him look brilliant for it. The 111.6 passer rating that included a 72 percent completion percentage and two touchdowns on Thursday was actually Newton's worst of the past three games.

Rivera saw this potential even when Newton was struggling.

He saw the potential in the entire team, which is why he continued to harp that the Panthers were close even when it didn't look like it from a distance.

"At no point did I ever doubt this group of guys," Rivera said. "Maybe because I'm an optimist, but I did believe it was just a matter of time."

That's not to suggest Rivera or anybody believes the Panthers have arrived. They have yet to beat a team with a winning record, and they have the toughest part of their schedule ahead.

But in the past they blew games like this one, or at least let the opponent make it closer than it should have been.

Again, Rivera deserves credit. He preached against a letdown all week. He reminded his team that the Buccaneers were no different than the Panthers were at 0-2, capable of turning things around.

That this team has stayed on the gas when it's gotten the opponent down for three consecutive weeks is something that was missing in the past. But more impressive is that the players aren't satisfied.

Nobody embodies that more than defensive end Greg Hardy.

"Still want another win," he said. "Completely unsatisfied and unhappy."

Hardy may have been scowling on the outside, but inside he had to be happy. Winning is fun, as wide receiver Steve Smith noted, and the Panthers are enjoying this ride.

"We're just being a team," free safety Mike Mitchell said. "We're not big on talking about what we are. We know who we are. And you're starting to see it."

But are the Panthers a serious playoff contender? Starting with the season opener, when they held Seattle to 12 points, their defense has proved to be one of the best in the league. They have special teams that are among the best as well.

What was missing was an offense that could consistently put big numbers on the board and control the game. Newton's newfound confidence and consistency has supplied that.

If that continues, maybe the Panthers can meet Seattle deep into the playoffs, as Smith predicted after Carolina's 12-7 loss in the opener.

But for at least a few days, they deserve to celebrate.

Rivera deserves to celebrate.

"Are we where we want to be?" Rivera said. "Yes, we're above .500, but we can be better. You've got to continue to work that way and we can expect to win."