- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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Here's how much better.
Only Chicago (3-0), New Orleans (3-0), Seattle (3-0), Dallas (2-1) and Detroit (2-1) had a better record in the NFC heading into Week 4. Only New Orleans had a better record in the NFC South with Atlanta 1-2 and Tampa Bay 0-3.
It gets better. Carolina's next five opponents -- Arizona (1-2), Minnesota (0-3), St. Louis (1-3), Tampa Bay (0-3) and Atlanta (1-2) -- entered Sunday's games a combined 3-13.
Does that mean the Panthers, enjoying an early bye week, are in position to get on a roll?
"We're not going to say going on a run or anything,'' quarterback Cam Newton said. "Our main focus is trying to become 2-2. We're not looking down saying where we want to be. Our main focus is going to Arizona (Oct. 6) and taking care of business.''
But prognostications for the Panthers, who were all but given up for dead a week ago, whose coach's future was unclear after a last-second 24-23 loss at Buffalo dropped him to 2-14 in games decided by seven points or less, don't seem as dismal as a week ago.
"It's downhill from here,'' running back DeAngelo Williams said. "It was an uphill battle those first two games starting out 0-2 and everybody talking bad about us. Then we come back and play the Giants the way we did, now every now and then everybody gives us a little love.
"That's the business we play in.''
Coach Ron Rivera said the win over the Giants can be a catalyst for a team that hasn't had a winning record since 2008. The mood in the locker room this past week certainly hasn't been of a team that has given up hope.
For the first time in a long time the Panthers believe they have an identity. The defense, ranked 11th in the NFL, has a lot to do with that after holding highly-touted Seattle to 12 points in the opener and shutting out the Giants.
Former Panthers general manager Bill Polian, now an analyst for ESPN, called the front seven one of the best groups nobody really knows.
Seven sacks and a shutout won't keep them unknowns for long.
The identity of the offense under new coordinator Mike Shula also is taking shape. The Panthers rank second in the NFL in rushing and Newton seems to be coming into his own as a leader.
Wins tend to cure a lot that ails a struggling team, and the victory over New York and the way it was accomplished came at the right time for Carolina.
"Very sweet,'' Newton said of the feeling. "It's something we want to get accustomed to. At the same time, we can't get beside ourselves with this win. It was a great win, but at the same time we have to get prepared for Arizona.''
In other words, the victory won't mean a thing if the Panthers lose five straight as they did after improving to 1-1 a year ago with a win over New Orleans.
The upcoming week is pivotal for a Carolina team on the cusp of finding itself. A loss at Arizona and all the momentum gained against the Giants will be lost.
But at least confidence is high, which helps the coaching staff reinforce what they're trying to instill.
"It's very big,'' Newton said. "Any time you talk about great teams or teams that mesh, it's one common denominator and that is a particular swagger. You never see a playoff- caliber team play scared or conservative.''
The Panthers are far from a playoff team, but 1-2 is much better than 0-3 when you look at history. Twenty-four percent of the teams that started 1-2 since 1990 have gone on to make the playoffs. Three percent that started 0-3 have.
The odds increase to 36 percent if Carolina can get to 2-2.
Oddsmakers like the Panthers better now, too. Their odds to reach the Super Bowl, according to Bovada, improved from 100-1 to 66-1 with the win over New York.
With the upcoming schedule and uncertainty in the rest of the NFC, who knows what the future holds.
"It's one win,'' Rivera said. "Simple math tells you we've got to win a few more before we get to where we want to be.''