CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A re-energized Cam Newton, a suddenly improving running game and the league’s No. 1-ranked defense have the Carolina Panthers thinking about a return to the playoffs for the fourth time in five years under coach Ron Rivera.

The Panthers enter the bye weekend having won three straight, leaving them at 7-3 and a half-game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.

Newton said before the team’s 45-21 blowout win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday night that it was starting to feel like a special season. The big win left the Panthers even more confident.

“We just want to keep it going,” said Newton, who was NFC offensive player of the week after throwing for 254 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 95 yards on five carries. “It’s not saying we’ve hit our pinnacle yet, and there’s nothing saying we can’t get better. That’s the thing we’ve just got to be optimistic about.”

There is plenty of reason to be upbeat, beginning with the defense.

Carolina’s veteran-laden group has been the backbone of the team this season, allowing a league-low 278 yards per game while holding four opponents without an offensive touchdown. If the Panthers can ever get some takeaways — they have just nine — they can become a dominant unit.

With veterans Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson up front, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis at linebacker, and Mike Adams and Kurt Coleman in the secondary, Carolina has plenty of experience to make a deep run in the postseason if those older players stay healthy.

The offense has been a work in progress most of the season as the team looked to “evolve” as a unit. That’s starting to happen.

The Panthers will need to replace rookie wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who was lost for the season to an ankle injury against the Dolphins. But the return of tight end Greg Olsen from injured reserve should be huge. Olsen was the only NFL tight end with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons before a broken foot in Week 2 sidelined him for eight games. If all goes well, Olsen said he plans to play against the Jets next Sunday.

Rivera said he is “curious” to see how Olsen will integrate back into the offense.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula wasn’t ready to choose a replacement for Samuel, saying the Panthers will fill the role “by committee.” That means Russell Shepard, Kaelin Clay and Brenton Bersin could all see increased playing time. The team may look to bring back Damiere Byrd from injured reserve in December.

The Panthers have relied heavily on rookie running back Christian McCaffrey out of the backfield. He is sixth in the NFL in receptions with 57.

But perhaps the most promising aspect ahead for the Panthers is their resurgent running game.

Among the league’s worst during the first half of the season, the Panthers ran for 201 yards against the Falcons and followed that with 294 yards against the Dolphins, led by Jonathan Stewart’s 110 yards. Stewart’s first 100-yard rushing game since last December came one week after he fumbled twice in the first half against the Falcons and saw a decreased role the rest of the game.

“A lot of people said some things about him and Jonathan just wanted to make sure everybody understood,” Rivera said. “He is not dumb. He is a big part of what we do and he is a part of the reasons why we had success. He is going to continue to work hard and he will be productive for us, as will the other backs”

The Panthers seem to be on a collision course with the Saints (7-2).

The Saints clobbered the Panthers at home earlier this season, but Carolina will get a second crack at them in New Orleans on Dec. 3 that could determine the NFC South title. With the way things are churning right now, the Panthers have to feel good about their chances of winning a fourth division title since 2013 — or at the very least making it in as a wild card.

“I feel as if we’re still scratching the surface with our potential and things we can do as a whole with this offense,” Newton said.


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