AJ Mast, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's amazing what one game against the Indianapolis Colts can do to solve a team's problems.
The Carolina Panthers struggled all season with consistency in the running game, special teams snafus and getting timely defensive stops, but those weren't issues over the weekend. Sure, it was the winless Colts. But for one week the Panthers put their problems behind them.
"People want to downplay this victory, that's fine," coach Ron Rivera said of the team's 27-19 win. "Just understand it's the NFL and it really doesn't matter. A win is a win and we're going to work off of it, feed off of it and use it to build... It's not like it was (against) just a bunch of guys. A lot of these guys have been to the Super Bowl.
"I know the linchpin was missing with Peyton (Manning) not being in there but there's an awful lot of things that didn't change about them."
It's all about little steps for the Panthers (3-8) right now.
Fresh off their first road win in 13 games, the Panthers go for back-to-back wins for the first time since 2009 this Sunday at Tampa Bay.
Third place in the NFC South is on the line.
That may not garner a whole lot of national attention, but for the Panthers it's a small, yet realistic goal on the road to what they hope will be bigger accomplishments.
Rivera's rallying call has been to build momentum going into next season and he hopes the win against the Colts will provide it.
"We're playing for six Sundays right now — the next five this year and then the week 1 next September," Rivera said. "We're going to start building in that direction. It's an opportunity now to do something we haven't done yet and that's win back-to-back games. I would love to do that."
The Panthers have a chance to do that if they play like they did on Sunday.
They posted a season-high 201 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns on the ground with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton splitting the load.
Their maligned special teams got an 81-yard kickoff return from Kealoha Pilares that led to a key field goal and an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter while not surrendering any big returns.
And the defense came up with a pair of fourth quarter interceptions in the end zone, including a nifty toe-tapper on the back end line by safety Sherrod Martin to seal the game with 35 seconds remaining.
Newton also took another step in his rookie progression — as well as toward setting a couple of NFL records — and shows no signs of slowing down.
"When you're the starting quarterback, you can't have a rookie wall," offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said.
Newton's 14-yard rushing touchdown was his 10th of the season, leaving him two shy of the league record for touchdown runs by a quarterback set by Steve Grogan in 1976. He already holds the league's rookie record.
Newton is also closing in on the rookie passing record. He needs only 647 yards passing in the final five weeks to break Peyton Manning's rookie record of 3,739 set in 1998.
But more importantly Rivera hopes Newton and his young teammates are figuring out how to win.
"What I'd like to do is get him in a situation where he can have back-to-back-to-back-to-back wins and see how he handles that," Rivera said. "It's all about him growing and developing as a football player and that'll help us as a football team and I think the whole idea of drafting Cam and developing Cam is for the future of this franchise. That young man can be here as long as we can have him if he stays healthy. He's an explosive football player that makes dynamic plays. I think that's important."
Wide receiver Steve Smith believes Sunday's win gives the players in the locker room some needed positive energy.
"It was big for us," Smith said. "Unfortunately the Colts, what they are going through, teams go through it. You can't go out there with feelings, you have to go out there and do your job. People pretty much say you're expected or you're supposed to beat them, and they're not this, they're not that. Every team goes through that, and unfortunately they are going through it. To be honest, I don't really care. That's their problem."
Notes: Rivera reported serious no injuries from Sunday's game, although tight end Greg Olsen did tweak his ankle after an inadvertent collision with wide receiver Seyi Ajirotutu during pre-game warmups. ... The Panthers had won 11 of 14 from the Bucs prior to getting swept last season. ... Rivera gave his players most of the day off Monday as a reward for Sunday's win.
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