- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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What it means: Carolina (3-3) has a chance Thursday night at Tampa Bay to get above .500 for the first time under third-year coach Ron Rivera and the first time since 2008. The Panthers, who started 1-5 each of the past two seasons, didn't win a close one, which has plagued them. But they did win an ugly one in which the Rams constantly shot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers in an oh-so-familiar way. Knowing it can play a subpar game and still get away with the victory at least has to be encouraging for a Carolina team trying to build an identity.
Stock watch: Running back Mike Tolbert scored on a 1-yard run in the first half to give him three touchdowns in the past two games. He has become the go-to guy in short-yardage situations, although he was stopped on two plays from the St. Louis 1 in the third quarter and then drew a personal foul. It will be interesting to see how his carries change when Jonathan Stewart, the team's second all-time leading rusher, returns from the physically unable to perform list. Rivera indicated that could be this week.
Inconsistent O-line: The Panthers did a poor job run and pass blocking, particularly in the first half when quarterback Cam Newton was sacked twice and Carolina ran for only 28 yards against the league's 30th-ranked run defense. Sixteen of that came on runs by Newton. DeAngelo Williams, the team's leading rusher, had seven yards on five carries in the first half. The Panthers couldn't move the Rams out of the way on two carries from the St. Louis 1-yard line in the third quarter.
Weakness in secondary: Left cornerback Josh Thomas was beaten for a 73-yard catch in the third quarter and a 63-yarder in the first half that was called back for a tripping penalty on the Rams. He is solid against the run but way too soft against the pass. Don't be surprised to see Melvin White or Drayton Florence get more time there.
Early team MVP: There are a lot of candidates on defense, but you can't overlook kicker Graham Gano. He is 9-for-9 on field goals after going 3-for-3 on Sunday -- including a 50-yarder that made him 3-for-3 from that range.
What's next? The Panthers travel to Tampa, Fla., for a Thursday night game. This will be the NFC South opener for Carolina, which lost both games to the currently winless Bucs a year ago.
51mEric D. Williams