Power Rankings: No. 12 Carolina Panthers

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

Preseason: 23 | Last Week: 12 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

Quarterback Cam Newton says the Carolina Panthers are getting into the meat of their schedule, and ESPN.com's Power Rankings are all the proof he needs.

Over the next seven weeks the No. 12 Panthers (5-3) have four games against teams ranked in the top seven, including two against NFC South rival New Orleans (6-2), ranked No. 6.

They have two more games against teams ranked in the top 20 -- the No. 14 New York Jets (5-4) and the No. 19 Miami Dolphins (4-4).

That's strong when you consider Carolina's five wins came against No. 31 Tampa Bay, No. 30 Minnesota, the No. 29 New York Giants, No. 26 Atlanta and No. 25 St. Louis.

Those teams are a combined 8-33, which is why a lot of eyes will be on Sunday's game at No. 5 San Francisco (6-2) and the following week's game at home against No. 7 New England (7-2) to see whether Carolina is for real.

The combined record of the four upcoming opponents ranked in the top seven is 25-8. That's strong. But the combined record of Carolina's second-half schedule doesn't look quite so intimidating at 36-30 thanks to games against 0-8 Tampa and 2-6 Atlanta.

If the NFL playoffs started today, the Panthers would be a wild card and the No. 6 seed in the NFC. Coach Ron Rivera believes this team has playoff potential.

The meat of the schedule will determine that.

"You play who you are supposed to play," Rivera said. "You sit there and you look at Atlanta, and you can’t tell me they’re a 2-6 team. There are a lot of good football players on that team, a lot of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros and future Hall of Famers, so you play who you play.

"Am I excited about the [upcoming] challenge? Yeah, because it’s the next biggest one. It’s the 49ers and I look forward to that challenge. We’ll get a good indication as to where we are."