CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers aren't talking playoffs yet, but there is no doubt last weekend's 10-9 victory against the reigning NFC champion San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park has increased expectations.
"In that locker room after that game, you would have thought doggone Jesus came back,'' quarterback Cam Newton said Wednesday. "Honestly. It was that type of feeling. It was a great feeling, and we want to continue having that type feeling.''
To maintain the feeling that has come with a five-game winning streak, the Panthers (6-3) must get past the New England Patriots (7-2) on Monday night.
"It's an extremely big opportunity,'' Newton said. "Out of respect of trying to tone it down as much as possible, but for us we need this more than anything. The Carolinas need this more than anything.''
The Panthers haven't been in the national spotlight since losing 33-13 at home to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 playoffs. They went 23-41 over the next four seasons, and were 13-19 in coach Ron Rivera's first two seasons.
This season looked to be a repeat of that as the Panthers lost their first two games. Since then, they've won six of seven to move within one game of the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South and into position for a playoff spot.
So when Newton says the team and its fans in the Carolinas need a game like this, he's not speaking off the cuff.
"I think I'm stating the obvious when I say everyone has been fiending for a magical season,'' Newton said. "No one wants to be a part of, no one wants to be affiliated with mediocrity, or something that's just bland, so to speak.
"For the past couple of years, we know it. The Carolina Panthers haven't been the hot topic, or the hot thing in the league.''
That means Newton, who arrived as the top pick of the 2011 draft and reigning Heisman Trophy winner, hasn't been the hot topic.
But he was emphatic this game and season isn't about him.
"We've all been waiting for this,'' Newton said. "I don't want to make it about me, because it's not about me. It's about more or less us as a team, us as a community, us as states. The more passionate we become about it, the more special it will be.
"I don't want to get into a game where it says, 'Well, Cam says this is a big game between him and Tom Brady.' No, I don't want the headlines to be that.''
Newton said he wanted the game to be about how the Panthers are preparing for a win and what a victory would mean for their fans.
"People that can't even come to the game,'' Newton said. "When they see you out, it means a lot to them when they see you. I know myself, that's why I play this game. To have that type of impact on a person, you know, saying, 'Man, I was screaming at my TV looking at you play the game. Man, I moved for y'all. I'm a diehard Panthers fan.' It's encouraging to hear that.''
Right tackle Jordan Gross, who has been with the Panthers since they selected him with the eighth pick in the 2003 draft, agreed.
"The last game anyone was this excited was when we lost to Arizona in the playoffs,'' he said. "That was the beginning of kind of a rough time for this organization. I'm glad for the excitement around this game. It's a lot more fun when people care.''
Rivera, who emphasizes on a daily basis the one-game-at-a-time approach, doesn't deny that.
"It's been a long road,'' he said. "It was two tough years before we got here and it's been two tough years while we're here. To be in the situation we are in, to do the things we need to do, and do them the right way, that's big.
"The excitement is great. I talked to the players about focusing on what it's really about, and that is the game. The excitement should be great for our fans and great for the city more so than anything else. We are in the spotlight and we are relevant.''
It's what, Newton reiterated, people have been waiting for.
"That's why you give that extra effort,'' he said. "That's why you see people [staying] after practice. That's why you see people before practice ... because it's becoming important to a lot of people.
"This [emotional high] we're on right now, no one in that locker room wants to come down from it.''