Five consecutive victories have propelled them to a 6-2 record and a tie for first place in the NFC South midway through the season. But coach John Fox and his players feel it's important to keep their strong start in perspective.
"It's like how nobody remembers halftime scores. Same way with this season," Fox said after the 34-14 domination of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"What does being 6-2 mean?" defensive tackle Brentson Buckner added. "It means we can still go 6-10."
Not the way the Panthers have played since stumbling out of the gate in September by losing two of their first three games. Lately, they've looked more and more like the championship contenders many expected them to be.
Stephen Davis ran for two touchdowns, Steve Smith caught his ninth TD pass and Chris Gamble scored on a 61-yard interception return to key the team's fifth straight victory in its bitter division rivalry with Tampa Bay.
Since the NFC South was formed in 2002, four of seven games between the teams have been decided by seven or fewer points. The last two have been blowouts, but Smith said that doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things.
"All we do is come out here and make plays. Every week is different," the speedy receiver said. "The thing they have that we don't have is a championship, and that's what we're trying to get."
The Bucs (5-3) lost for the third time in four games, falling out of a first-place tie with Carolina and Atlanta.
"We just got beat by a better team today," Tampa Bay's Chris Simms said. "I'm not going to make any excuses."
Smith scored on a 35-yard pass from Jake Delhomme in the fourth quarter, while Carolina's defense forced four turnovers and sacked Simms five times to ruin the young quarterback's second start of the season.
Davis scored on a 4-yard run that defensive end Mike Rucker set up by recovering Cadillac Williams ' fumble. Rucker also sacked Simms to force a third-quarter fumble that led to one of John Kasay 's two field goals for the Panthers.
Delhomme's 61-yard completion to Ricky Proehl was the big play in a five-play, 90-yard drive that Davis finished with a 1-yard run that put Carolina up 17-7 in the second quarter. Smith's TD made it 34-7 and gave the speedy receiver his sixth 100-yard game of the season.
Smith, coming off an 11-catch, 201-yard performance against Minnesota, finished with five receptions for 106 yards.
"They won because they made more plays. I didn't think they outmanned us," Bucs defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said. "What's disappointing for us is we had an opportunity to make a statement and we didn't do it."
Simms completed 25 of 41 passes for 259 yards and two interceptions. He threw a 50-yard TD pass to Joey Galloway in the second quarter, and Mike Alstott added a 1-yard TD run in the fourth quarter for Tampa Bay.
Simms also struggled in his first start of the season for the injured Brian Griese, throwing two interceptions and losing a fourth-quarter fumble in a loss at San Francisco the previous week.
The 49ers sacked him five times, and the Bucs were unable to ease the burden on the third-year pro by running the ball.
It was much the same story against Carolina, which took away the running game by first containing Williams and then building a big lead to forced Simms into a situation in which he had to throw on nearly every down.
Rucker and Julius Peppers had two sacks apiece for the Panthers, who led 17-7 when Gamble stepped in front of sideline throw to Michael Clayton and broke open the game early in the second half.
"That was a backbreaker for them," Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas said. "They still felt like they had a chance. We took all the air out of them with that play."
Williams was held to 29 yards on 11 carries in his second game since returning from a foot sprain that kept him out of two games. Since becoming the first player in NFL history to begin his career with three consecutive 100-yard days rushing, the Bucs rookie has been limited to 62 yards on 35 attempts in his last three games.
"We're in a slump right now," Williams said. "We just didn't get much done."
Notes: Delhomme was 11 of 18 for 216 yards and no interceptions, while Davis rushed for 48 yards on 12 carries. ... A week after being sent home from San Francisco for missing a team meeting, Bucs DE Simeon Rice didn't have any tackles. ... Galloway had five receptions for 83 yards. He has 12 touchdowns in his last 13 games.