Bryan Strickland Senior Writer
SAN DIEGO – When running back DeAngelo Williams lost a fumble late in the third quarter and the San Diego Chargers recovered, the pyrotechnics crew at Qualcomm Stadium shot flames into the air much to the disinterest of fans.
Thanks to the Panthers’ second straight smoking-hot performance, the Chargers had plenty of fire still in the hole.
Officially, Sunday’s 31-7 victory is a case of too little, too late.
But the Panthers refuse to look at it that way, and that’s part of what is allowing them to look like a playoff-caliber team, even after being eliminated from playoff contention.
“It’s not about the record right now. It’s about the simple fact that I feel like we’re a great team,” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “Everybody counts us out, but we believe in this locker room that we can stand with anybody.
“I’m not going to say that we’re better than such-and-such or such-and-such, but we can stand with anybody. That’s what we’re out to prove for next year.”
One week after thrashing a one-loss Atlanta team, 30-20, in a game that wasn’t even that close, the Panthers traveled across the country and dismantled a San Diego team that entered the day with a slim chance of making the playoffs.
Carolina scored three first-quarter touchdowns while allowing San Diego just one first down and cruised from there.
“Last week was a huge week for us, so you always have some concern about some letdown, especially flying all the way across the country,” left tackle Jordan Gross said.
“But to come out and score three touchdowns and have our defense play as well as they did, it really makes you feel like guys are starting to figure out what it takes to win. All we can do is keep doing that.”
The other side of the coin, of course, is that when the playoffs were still a possibility, the Panthers did not play like this. And as close followers of the team know, Carolina hasn’t enjoyed anything involving coins this season.
The Panthers came oh-so close to turning a slow start to the season on a dime in Week 4 against Atlanta. But instead of pulling out an unexpected victory to tighten the NFC South a month into the season, they suffered a last-second loss in devastating fashion that virtually ended the race before it started.
“I think that took a lot out of us in retrospect,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “Probably the biggest thing that’s happening now is the confidence level that we’re playing with. If only we could have developed that confidence early – maybe by winning the Atlanta game.”
For the second consecutive season, the Panthers have displayed remarkable resolve when there was little left for which to play. Following a 2-8 start dotted with close losses in 2011 – a season that everybody labeled as a rebuilding effort – Carolina went 4-2 the rest of the way.
Because of that finish, much more was expected in 2012, but the Panthers didn’t live up to expectations.
“Hopefully, you learn from the past in everything you do,” Gross said. “Last year we finished strong and maybe we thought things would come a little easier than they did.
“For whatever reason we didn’t start fast. We have to be able to do that next year, but that’s a long ways off. For now we’ve got an opportunity to make it three in a row.”
This year’s 2-8 start wasn’t met with nearly as much understanding as last year’s – and understandably so. But the Panthers have refused to throw in the towel.
After a demoralizing overtime loss to Tampa Bay that dropped Carolina to 2-8, the Panthers bounced back with a Monday Night Football victory at Philadelphia that was the beginning of an outstanding stretch for quarterback Cam Newton.
Then, Carolina lost a heartbreaker to a heartbroken Kansas City team six days later but followed with consecutive victories for the first time this season entering next week’s home finale versus the Oakland Raiders.
“The biggest thing is that the guys continue to come to work every week, practice hard and continue to do the things we ask of them,” Rivera said. “As long as they continue to do that, we give ourselves a chance to win football games.
“I know we don’t have a chance to make the playoffs, but with the way our guys are approaching things, we can keep that momentum going.”