The Panthers took care of business very efficiently on Thursday night, moving to 4-3 on the season by whipping Tampa Bay, 31-13, on national television (although undoubtedly a lot of national viewers were watching the World Series instead of NFL Network). Five things I liked in particular:
-- Cam Newton. The third-year quarterback (shown above in a photo by The Observer's Jeff Siner) is on what may be the best three-game run of his career. He's making smart decisions, he's running and he's throwing with extreme accuracy. The Panthers are 3-0 over their past three for many reasons -- including a favorable schedule -- but no reason is bigger than No.1. He has six TD passes, zero INTs and a completion pct. of 77 over those three games.
-- Ron Rivera. Give the coach credit -- he's become a real disciple of going for it on fourth-and-1 after two-plus years of conservatism. Rivera went for it again Thursday -- up 14-6, disdaining a field goal -- and was rewarded when the Panthers eventually scored a touchdown on the drive. And a tip of the hat to offensive coordinator Mike Shula, too -- he mixed it up nicely Thursday.
-- Colin Jones. He doesn't make this list often, but what an impressive play in the third quarter by the special-teamer. Jones first forced a fair catch by beating his man as a "gunner" going downfield. Then, when the punt was dropped, Jones outmuscled two other Buccaneers for the ball and a fumble recovery. That recovery resulted in the TD that truly put the game away for Carolina.
-- Team defense. The team's bedrock, the Panther D was tough again, allowing field goals instead of TDs when it mattered (the Bucs' lone TD came with 2:53 left and Carolina already ahead 31-6). They will continue to be ranked very high in all relevant categories after this week. One cautionary note: Charles Johnson limped off the field with 1:08 to go, obviously in pain. Losing No.95 for any length of time would be a huge blow (UPDATE: It's a groin injury, likely a strain. Johnson hopes to play in the next game but it's too early to tell). Captain Munnerlyn was also furious with himself for getting his hands on four footballs and catching none of them. "Gotta get on the JUGS machine," he said.
-- .500 phobia is over. The Panthers haven't been over the .500 mark during an NFL regular season since late December 2008. Now, finally they are at 4-3, with 10 days to get ready for a visit from the struggling Atlanta Falcons (2-4) on Nov.3. All in all, after that nasty 1-3 start, it's not a bad place to be at all. "We haven't been in a spot like this for a really long time," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said.
Meanwhile, the Bucs are in a freefall -- like the Panthers back in 2001 (at 1-15) or 2010 (at 2-14). I can't imagine coach Greg Schiano will last for too much longer -- not with an 0-7 record and stuff like this picture below going on in the stands.