Panthers headed in right direction as they head into playoffs

ATLANTA -- There was singing and dancing. There were smiles on faces that were grim five weeks ago. There was a euphoria you might expect from a team that had won a prize much greater than the NFC South title.

The Carolina Panthers may have a losing record (7-8-1) and be champions of the NFL's worst division, but they now have the same opportunity as any other playoff team to do something special.

They know it, too.

"I'm not concerned what our record is, because right now everybody is even," coach Ron Rivera said after Sunday's 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

If defense wins championships, the Panthers have a chance. They've played like a top-10 unit the past nine games, and in Sunday's win they looked eerily like last season's No. 2-ranked defense with six sacks and a franchise-first two interceptions returned for touchdowns.

If a strong running game wins championships, the Panthers have a chance. They had 194 yards rushing against Atlanta, which is their average the past five games. Jonathan Stewart's 486 yards during that span ranks among the top in the NFL.

If strong quarterback play wins championships, the Panthers have a chance. Cam Newton, two weeks removed from suffering two small fractures in his lower back in an automobile accident, had a passer rating of 104.7 against Atlanta despite throwing only 16 times. It was his second rating above 100 in his past three starts.

He also rushed six times for 51 yards and a touchdown, giving him more than 500 yards for the fourth time in four seasons.

If momentum wins championships, the Panthers have a chance. They've won four straight games, second only to the six straight by the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

You can argue the Panthers didn't beat a team that made the playoffs during their winning streak. You can argue two of the wins came against two of the worst defenses in the NFL, Atlanta and New Orleans.

But they're winning, and now they host a playoff game Saturday against an Arizona team that has lost four of its past six games and is a mess at quarterback.

The naysayers that gave up on Carolina after a loss to Minnesota dropped the record to 3-8-1 probably don't expect much now. But the Panthers believe they are close to becoming the complete team they were miles away from being during a 1-7-1 streak.

Cornerback Josh Norman in particular was fired up about all the doubters, particularly television analysts.

"You might want to look twice again before you try to doubt somebody and what they can and cannot do," he said defiantly.

Reminded the Panthers had only three wins a month ago, Norman said, "We did. But did we ever doubt ourselves? Did we ever kick it in? Did we ever throw it in the tank? Did we? I didn't think we did. That's why we're [champions] of the South two years in a row."

That the NFC South remained a mess long enough to keep Carolina in contention helped. That the players and coaches believed they were on the right track helped as well.

Tweaks to the lineup, adding speed to the secondary in cornerback Bene' Benwikere and free safety Tre Boston and at wide receiver in Philly Brown, never was more evident than this day.

Brown had a 28-yard run on a reverse and caught a 28-yard pass. Boston returned an interception 84 yards for a touchdown, making good on his pregame premonition that the Panthers would return two for scores. Strong safety Roman Harper had a 31-yarder in the first half to make it 17-3.

And had linebacker Thomas Davis not been called for illegal contact to negate his interception, the Panthers would have had three returned for touchdowns.

"We've shown we can do it," Davis said of Carolina's dominant effort. "Now we've just got to show we can do it on a consistent basis."

The Panthers may not be the most complete team in the NFL heading into the playoffs, but they are headed in the right direction. If they get past Arizona, they could face No. 1 seed Seattle, a team they narrowly lost to, 13-9, on Oct. 26.

"I feel like we're a team that is playing as well as any team in the league now," Davis said. "Anything can happen."

It already has.

A team given up for dead last month is in the playoffs.