What it means: The Sunday night (Dec. 8) showdown with the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South lead is now a reality. The Panthers won a franchise-record eighth straight game, improving to 9-3. They moved within half a game of the Saints (9-2), who play at Seattle on Monday night. It will be the first of two games between Carolina and New Orleans during a three-week stretch that likely will decide the division and possibly a first-round playoff bye. That the Panthers were able to defeat Tampa, which had won three straight, with such a workmanlike performance shows their focus.
Stock watch: This seems like a weekly segment here, but it's hard to ignore what Cam Newton is doing. He dove for a touchdown on fourth-and-1 and passed for two more. His 56-yard scramble in the first half got the offense going early. He did make a horrible throw that was intercepted late in the third quarter with Carolina leading 24-6, but otherwise this was another solid performance.
Riverboat Ron: This seems like a weekly segment as well, mainly because coach Ron Rivera takes a chance on fourth-and-1 almost every game now. Newton rewarded his coach's confidence with a 1-yard touchdown dive with 25 seconds left in the half to make it 17-6 and pretty much end the suspense in this one. Carolina made one more fourth-and-1 late, improving to 8-for-10 on the season. It is 9-for-11 on fourth down overall.
Bowling ball: Running back Mike Tolbert, aka the "Bowling Ball," doesn't get enough credit for all he does as a leader, runner, blocker and receiver. But with leading rusher DeAngelo Williams (quad) out, perhaps a few took notice. He rushed nine times for 48 yards and caught three passes for 41 yards. His second effort was impossible to miss.
Secondary woes: The secondary was under the magnifying glass after Rivera opened the competition at both cornerback spots this week. New starter Drayton Florence allowed a 60-yard reception in the first half, but otherwise this group held its own.
What's next? The Panthers travel to New Orleans for an NFC South showdown against the New Orleans Saints. Carolina swept the two-game series last season.