Win over unbeaten 49ers would elevate Panthers' status in NFC

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera admittedly was “a little disconnected” from the NFL during the bye weekend while fishing and playing with his golden retriever Tahoe in Shiloh, North Carolina.

Rivera wasn’t so disconnected that he didn’t notice the Panthers (4-2), who entered the bye with a four-game winning streak, didn’t get a lot of national love in terms of being a serious playoff contender.

“That was kind of interesting,” Rivera said.

He didn’t expand upon the thought.

But you know Rivera, who likes to play the us-against-the-world card, will use that as motivation for Sunday’s game at San Francisco (6-0), the only undefeated team in the NFC and one of only two undefeated teams in the NFL.

This will be one of those measuring-stick games, as Rivera likes to call them. The next three weeks will be a gauge for just how legitimate the Panthers' hopes are, with that road game against the 49ers, then a home game against Tennessee (3-4) and a trip to Green Bay (6-1).

The results very well could determine whether Carolina will be a contender or a pretender with a tough finishing stretch of Seattle (5-2), Indianapolis (4-2) and New Orleans (6-1), all considered serious playoff contenders.

The quickest way to instant respect would be a victory at San Francisco. The 49ers are second overall in total defense, allowing 223.5 yards a game. They are second in rushing offense with 172.7 yards a game.

As Rivera noted, this isn’t just the toughest test for quarterback Kyle Allen, who is 4-0 as the starter this season and 5-0 overall while replacing Cam Newton. This is the toughest test on Carolina’s schedule, period.

“They’re 6-0 for a reason,” Rivera said of the 49ers.

The Panthers have won four straight for a reason. Running back Christian McCaffrey is third in the NFL in rushing with 618 yards, and leaders Dalvin Cook (725) and Leonard Fournette (715) have each played one more game.

Allen hasn’t thrown an interception and has a passer rating of 106.6, better than those of Aaron Rodgers (103.7), Dak Prescott (102.6) and Deshaun Watson (104.1), to name a few.

The defense leads the league in sacks with 27, one more than the Patriots, who have played one more game. It is second to New England in quarterback hits with 50 and interceptions with nine.

Perhaps most impressive is that the Panthers have won four straight without Newton (foot), Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner (ankle) and Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kawann Short (shoulder, injured reserve)

They’ve also played without starting cornerback Donte Jackson (groin) for much of it and are down to their third left tackle in rookie Dennis Daley.

Daley in his last game responded with Pro Football Focus’ best grade in the NFL at his position.

So Rivera knows his team is resilient.

“We’re kind of understanding who we are and what we potentially can be as a football team,” he said. “We’re still a ways away, and we’ve got a lot of work to do. ... We still have room to grow. We can play better football. We can be a better football team. We’re headed in the right direction. We’re not where we want to be.”

Perhaps, but Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary likes where the Panthers are.

“Their team is really one of the more balanced teams in the league,” he said.

In terms of respect, though, the Panthers do have a ways to go. They’re still the second-best team in the NFC South behind the Saints. San Francisco, Green Bay, Seattle and Minnesota (5-2) have better records. If the playoffs started today, Carolina would be on the outside looking in.

“We’re used to being counted out,” defensive end Mario Addison said. “At the end of the day, they’ve got to play us.”

The Panthers are getting stronger. Jackson and Turner are on target to play against San Francisco. Allen has grown more confident running the offense and is protecting the ball better after struggling with strip sacks in his first three starts.

“It’s a great challenge,” Allen said. “We’re all really excited for it. It’s a great meter to see where we are as a team.”

And the Panthers are motivated by the lack of attention.

“A hungry team,” Jackson said. “Willing to do anything to prove the naysayers wrong. That’s what we’re doing. ... We know what we’ve got here. We know what we’re cooking here in Charlotte.

“That’s the only thing that matters to us. It don’t really matter what people are saying.”