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Panthers are suddenly a dangerous-looking team

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Earlier this month, the Panthers were left for dead. Now they are suddenly a trendy pick to do some damage in the playoffs.

Only the Seahawks, who have won six straight games, are on a longer hot streak than the Panthers. And while a 7-8-1 overall record isn’t attractive, four wins in December have Carolina looking about as good as anyone else when it matters most.

“We’ve been in playoff mode for a long time, and especially in these last four weeks. As we went through each week, each week was truly a do-or-die situation,” coach Ron Rivera said Monday.

After rising up to win the lowly NFC South, the Panthers are favored to get through this weekend’s wild-card round. The division title earned them a home game Saturday against the teetering Arizona Cardinals and their unenviable Drew Stanton-or-Ryan Lindley quarterback situation.

Amazingly, the Panthers seem to be in a better position than they were last year, when they went into the playoffs at 12-4. The Cardinals appear to be an easier opponent than the San Francisco 49ers, who came to Charlotte and knocked the Panthers out in the divisional round last season. And that game came after a bye, which has never been a good thing for Rivera.

When asked if he was glad the Panthers don’t have an off week this time around, Rivera quickly answered, “Yes, because you’d constantly remind me.”

Including that loss to the 49ers, Rivera’s record after a bye is 0-5. So not only does he avoid one of his bugaboos this week, but he can also try to keep his team rolling straight ahead.

“I think being able to carry momentum into week-by-week is a lot better than all of a sudden you’re going to pause and take a breath and your mind wanders a little bit,” he said. “It’s hard to maintain that, especially when you know you’ve got a break. So am I glad about (not having a bye)? Yeah, I really am.”

It truly is wild how the tables have turned in just a month. For a while, many thought the NFC South did not even deserve a team in the playoffs. Now, the Panthers are a team few want to play. But that is life in the NFL. One day, people are telling you to plan for next season. Another, they are asking how far you can go this year.

“It’s the nature of the game. Four in a row and we have some healthy guys and have done some things different,” Rivera said. “If (being labeled as dangerous) is the way people want to look at it, then fine. We are going to play on Saturday and do the best we can and see what happens.”

NOTES: The Panthers became the first repeat NFC South champion since the NFL realigned in 2002 and also earned their first back-to-back playoff appearances. They are the second NFL team to win a division with a losing record. Seattle was 7-9 in 2010. … The Panthers’ 2015 home opponents: NFC South, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts. Away: NFC South, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans.

REPORT CARD VS. FALCONS

–PASSING OFFENSE: B-plus — The Panthers did not ask QB Cam Newton to do too much because he did not have to. His 10 completions tied a career low, and his 16 attempts and 114 passing yards were career lows. But Newton was efficient and, most important, mistake-free.

–RUSHING OFFENSE: B-plus — Newton was the game’s leading rusher with 51 yards on six carries. Running back Jonathan Stewart managed just 49 yards, his lowest total since Week 11. But the Panthers gained 194 yards on the ground, averaging 5.5 yards per carry.

–PASS DEFENSE: A — Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who was 5-0 without an interception against the NFC South this year, threw two picks that were returned for touchdowns. Ryan had not been sacked since early in the third quarter of Week 14, but he was sacked six times and hit at least 12 other times. He also failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 21 games.

–RUSH DEFENSE: A — The Falcons could never get a run game going, especially after they fell behind. RB Jacquizz Rodgers led them with 44 yards on nine carries.

–SPECIAL TEAMS: B — P Brad Nortman tied a career high with a 72-yard punt, while K Graham Gano nailed both of his field goal attempts. The Panthers did a good job keeping it out of the hands of dangerous returner Devin Hester, even though he did have a 66-yard kickoff return that set up Atlanta’s only field goal.

–COACHING: A — Coach Ron Rivera won his seventh straight game in December, and he is 15-3 overall during the month. His players and coaches were well-prepared and dominated the Falcons from start to finish.


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