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Panthers learning how to win

Cam Newton and the Panthers won their second game on Sunday after several frustrating defeats. Bob Donnan/US Presswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ron Rivera was talking specifically about his defense, but he might as well have been summing up the state of the entire Carolina Panthers team.

“Our guys are going to learn and they’re going to understand those things and get better,’’ the first-year head coach said. “When they get better, people need to watch out.’’

Maybe people should start watching out for the Panthers now. They defeated the Washington Redskins 33-20 on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

That alone isn’t going to make Carolina’s season. The Panthers are 2-5, and I’ll go way out on a limb and say they’re not going to make the playoffs this season. That will come in the future. But they will have an impact on the NFC South race the rest of this season.

They have two games with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and one each with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. They’ve already played the Saints and Falcons pretty closely, but ended up doing the same thing they did in their other three losses. They squandered chances to win.

That’s why beating the Redskins, who came in with a winning record, marked a big step for the Panthers. They never trailed in this game, and their defense, a problem spot all season, came up with three sacks, an interception and two fumble recoveries.

That’s huge progress, because this is a defense that’s playing even more young guys than planned because of season-ending injuries to linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, and defensive tackle Ron Edwards.

“I take my hat off to the defense,’’ left tackle Jordan Gross said. “It was our best performance by far. They gave us the ball in good field position a lot and they made some big stops. I think they’ve only got room to go up from here and I’m excited about that.

Gross is one of just a handful of Panthers who were with the team in 2008 -- the last winning season. He’s been to Pro Bowls and so has wide receiver Steve Smith. They’re also the players remaining from the team that went to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2003 season.

Gross and Smith know how to win on the NFL level. But most of the Panthers haven’t experienced that on a consistent basis.

In the first six games, which included a win against Jacksonville, the Panthers have shown plenty of positive signs. Rookie quarterback Cam Newton started faster than anyone expected and energized Smith, who looks like he did in the middle of the last decade. Tight ends Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey have brought a dimension the offense hasn’t had since Wesley Walls left, and the running game (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart) has shown some flashes.

But the Panthers played porous defense, and even Newton and the offense were responsible for some crucial late-game mistakes that had kept the Panthers from winning.

“The fans have been so great,’’ Rivera said. “Wherever I’ve been, they’ve thanked me for us being close. It’s kind of frustrating, but, at the same time, I really appreciate that. But we want to give them victories. It’ll be great to say, 'Hey, we got one.'’’

But the moral victories were beginning to wear thin on some fans. Having a quarterback who can go out and throw for 400 yards in a game can only bring so much excitement when you’re piling up losses.

“I said to our team before the game, 'It’s our time. We deserve this,'’’ Gross said.

Coming close wasn’t good enough for Gross, Rivera, the front office, ownership and a growing number of fans.

“You don’t want to make too much out of one win or get too excited, but this team needs to win,’’ Gross said. “We can feel what it’s like to win and be excited, and hopefully everybody can remember this formula.’’

The formula actually is pretty simple in theory, and the Panthers were able to follow it throughout the entire game against Washington.

“Get the lead, keep it, and it’s a whole different ballgame,’’ Gross said.

It was a different ballgame as Newton had a very efficient day, completing 18 of 23 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown, and also running for 59 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers combined for 175 rushing yards, and the defense limited the Redskins to two field goals in the second half.

“When I walked out (of the locker room), I know the guys started talking about, 'Hey, we’ve got another opportunity to keep it going,'’’ Rivera said.

The Panthers do have an opportunity to build the first winning streak of Rivera’s tenure. The Minnesota Vikings (1-6) come to town in Week 8. After that, Carolina has a bye week. After that, the Panthers could start playing the role of spoiler for the rest of the NFC South in the second half of the season.

“We feel good about ourselves,’’ middle linebacker Dan Connor said. "That’s how you can start to build some momentum.''

You can see Rivera’s building something very promising in Carolina, and this victory might have been a nice step in that process.

“Sometimes you open up a restaurant and it’s under new management,’’ said Smith, who had seven catches for 143 yards. “Sometimes you just have to blow up the restaurant and start all over. That’s what Coach Rivera has done. He just didn’t slap a new menu on there. He did it all over -- new paint, new walls, new furniture and everything.’’

The paint is starting to dry and the furniture is starting to get comfortable. At some point down the road -- and it might not be that far off -- the rest of the NFC South is going to have to watch out for the Panthers.