- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: The Panthers keep talking about being relevant. Winning four straight and five of their past six games has made them that. This wasn't as pretty as the others, but the end result was just as decisive. They beat a team that was down and took advantage of mistakes. That's what you have to do in the NFL to be relevant. Their five wins have come by the average score of 33.6-9.6. Now comes the toughest test of the season, a game at San Francisco.
Stock watch: You knew quarterback Cam Newton couldn't keep up his unbelievable three-game pace of completing 77.3 percent of his passes and compiling a passer rating of just over 130. He wasn't close with a rating of 68.4, throwing two first-half interceptions and missing receivers high all day to take away big plays. But he made some big plays in the second half with his legs, rushing three times for 22 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown run with nine minutes left to seal this one.
Stock watch II: Wide receiver Brandon LaFell had arguably the best game of his career, catching a season-best seven passes for 74 yards. Many were tough catches, too. He was a bit lucky as well, recovering his own fumble at the Atlanta 8 to set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Stewart debut: Jonathan Stewart's first carry since last November wasn't anything to write home about. The team's second all-time leading rusher, activated on Saturday from the PUP list after missing seven games with an ankle injury, was thrown for a 2-yard loss. His last play, a 16-yard carry around the left side, was. He finished with a team-best 43 yards on nine carries. He also contributed 22 yards receiving on three catches. He had quality touches like the Panthers wanted.
Riverboat Rivera: This is starting to become a weekly staple here. Coach Ron Rivera gambled on fourth-and-1 for the seventh time since Week 2. It's really not a gamble anymore. The Panthers converted for the fifth time, this one for a 14-yard touchdown from Cam Newton to tight end Greg Olsen in the first half. The five conversions, according to ESPN statistics, were tied for the most in the league to that point.
What's next? The Panthers travel to San Francisco to play the 49ers next Sunday at 4 p.m. ET.