The Panthers took advantage of five interceptions by rookie quarterback Josh Freeman on Sunday to beat the Buccaneers 16-6 at Bank of America Stadium.
But duplicating that feat down the stretch will be much tougher.
The Panthers close their schedule with a brutal four-game stretch that includes New England (7-5), Minnesota (10-2), the New York Giants (7-5) and New Orleans (11-0). That foursome features a stellar list of veteran quarterbacks -- Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Eli Manning and Drew Brees.
"We've got some quality opponents coming up, playoff teams," said safety Chris Harris, who had one of five picks for Carolina on Sunday. "We're going to have to step our game up because every team we're playing is still fighting -- and statistically, mathematically, we're still in the equation."
Mathematically, they are.
Realistically, they aren't.
With the four games left, the Panthers trail Philadelphia, Green Bay and the Giants in the race for the two NFC wild-card spots.
When asked Monday if he uses the fact the Panthers are still alive to motivate his players, coach John Fox said, "I think those things you kind of mention, but the real focus needs to be on the New England Patriots, a good football team that is very tough to beat at their place.
"I'm not getting much further ahead with that. That's not a cliche. I just think that's where all of our focus needs to be at this point."
Making things even more difficult for the Panthers is that they'll face a Patriots team that's eager to take out its frustration on the Panthers after losing back-to-back games to New Orleans and division rival Miami.
When asked if that makes the Patriots more dangerous, Fox replied, "They are all dangerous."
In reality, the Panthers are on to preparing for next season.
That's why Matt Moore is expected to start this week -- and, in all likelihood, for the remainder of the season -- even if regular starter Jake Delhomme gets healthy.
"It's going to be tough like any Sunday," offensive lineman Travelle Wharton said. "Every week you have to go out there and be ready to play. This week is like any other. Our goal is to finish strong."
Tight end Jeff King offered a ray of hope, saying the Panthers have been competitive with some quality teams this year.
"We haven't played as well as we've liked throughout the weeks, but you look at (Sunday) night -- we beat the Arizona Cardinals in Arizona, they looked pretty good (Sunday in a win over Minnesota)," King said. "So we're capable of beating some good teams on the road. We've displayed that already."
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