The Carolina Panthers (2-6) may not be headed to the NFL Playoffs this season—though stranger things have happened to change that—but Cam Newton, Charles Johnson and company finally broke through with a decisive 21-13 victory over Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins.
Carolina entered the game losers of five straight, including four consecutive losses by five or fewer points, and they led entering the fourth quarter for the third week in a row.
However, for the first time in seven weeks—and just the second time all season—the Panthers not only outplayed their opponent, but they emerged from the game victorious.
Even though the box score will show that Washington's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback ran and threw for more yards than Carolina's similarly celebrated signal caller, Cam Newton outplayed RGIII on Sunday.
For the first time since beating the New Orleans Saints 35-27 in Week 2, the Panthers found their winning formula by running the ball effectively and harassing the opposing quarterback with a dominant four-man rush.
Carolina used a balanced offensive attack—23 passes and 27 runs—to score three touchdowns, including two scores on drives of more than 90 yards, and they did not turn the ball over all day.
The Panthers also hit on several big plays at FedEx Field on Sunday, most notably DeAngelo Williams' 30-yard touchdown scamper along the right sideline on the game's second drive and an 82-yard pass completion to seldom-used receiver Armanti Edwards.
Jonathan Stewart gained 51 yards on 10 carries as the Panthers' featured back, as Carolina had no troubles running the ball against the Redskins' injury-depleted defense.
Steve Smith finally found the end zone for the first time this season, and Newton picked up his fourth rushing touchdown of the season.
Carolina's defensive front seven effectively bottled up RGIII by sacking him four times and delivering multiple hits to the Redskins' leading Rookie of the Year candidate on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Luke Kuechly added 15 tackles from the middle linebacker position and he, along with Thomas Davis, helped limit the Redskins' rookie running back Alfred Morris to 76 yards on 13 carries. Morris entered the game as the NFL's third-leading rusher through eight games.
Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are quickly forming a dominant duo at the defensive end position, as Johnson had his third multiple-sack game of the season, bringing RGIII down twice in the backfield. Hardy added 1.5 sacks and Dwan Edwards notched half a sack from his DT position.
Several players have stepped up in the secondary, too, especially since Chris Gamble was placed on IR two weeks ago.
Captain Munnerlyn is playing well, Josh Thomas has filled in admirably off the bench and Josh Norman is finally coming into his own as a cover corner halfway through his rookie season.
Charles Godfrey and the Haruki Nakamura/Sherrod Martin combo at free safety have also done a good job at not allowing the big play downfield ever since Roddy White's 59-yard reception over an outstretched Nakamura in Week 4 set up Atlanta's unlikely come-from-behind victory.
At the season's midway point, the Carolina Panthers are exactly where they were last season, but their on-field performance has been markedly better.
At 2-6, Carolina only has to win half of its remaining games to finish with a 6-10 record, which would be identical to last season.
Expectations were high for a 10-win season and a playoff run before the season started, and the Panthers fell flat on their faces coming out of the gates.
The Panthers have been close all season and perhaps after getting their first road win of the season Carolina will finally take the next step in becoming a winning team.