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Carolina Panthers climb above .500 at Bucs' expense

The Carolina Panthers have reached a place they haven't been since the 2008 season: over .500.

Cam Newton threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score to lead the Panthers to an easy 31-13 win over the helpless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday night. The Panthers now are 4-3, ending a stretch of 70 games in which they were at .500 or below (usually below).

That's also a three-game winning streak for Ron Rivera's team. They've done that before in the Newton era, but this is the first time it's happened when it actually means something. The Panthers are players in the NFC postseason mix, something that hasn't happened since the days of Jake Delhomme.

The rise starts with Newton, who represents the Panthers' best chance at an overdue breakthrough season. The third-year pro is playing some of the best football of his career, and Thursday was a microcosm of all that's possible when No. 1 is at the top of his game.

Newton's mechanics were sound, his throws crisp and precise. He finished 23-of-32 passing for 221 yards and two touchdown passes and added 50 yards and one score on the ground. The Panthers have put up more than 30 points without committing a turnover in each of their past three games. That all starts with the guy who calls himself Superman.

Yes, the Bucs are terrible. In fact, the combined record of the teams Carolina's beaten over the past three weeks is 4-17. But good teams punish the bad ones, and the Panthers have done that -- outscoring the Buccaneers, Rams and Vikings 96-38.

If you're a non-believer, you'll either be validated or proven wrong over the next four weeks. The Panthers will host the Falcons, travel to the 49ers, host the Patriots and then travel to the Dolphins. A good team comes out of that stretch challenged, but upright.

The Panthers are winning games they should, a significant achievement for a team that's been afraid of its shadow for too long. The next test is winning games people think they shouldn't.

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