Running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart paved the way for such a possibility during Monday night's 38-23 home victory over Tampa Bay.
The duo combined for a rushing total that sounds more like a healthy batting average: Williams and Stewart tallied 301 yards and four touchdowns, helping the Panthers take the NFC South lead and bettering the odds of an even bigger prize at month's end.
By winning its final three games, Carolina (10-3) is guaranteed home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"We knew this game was huge," Williams said. "It was a playoff atmosphere."
Williams and Stewart moved the Panthers closer to the postseason with three fourth-quarter rushing touchdowns. First, Stewart flashed the power that made him a 2008 first-round draft choice on a four-yard score. Williams then added sizzle with touchdown jaunts of 16 and 36 yards, the latter sealing the victory with 2:17 remaining.
Williams (186 rushing yards) and Stewart (115) were so dominant that Panthers wide receiver Mushin Muhammad had a flashback to 2003. That was the season when the Stephen Davis-DeShaun Foster tandem helped power Carolina to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
"Those two guys complemented each other pretty well," Muhammad said. "But these two guys are really different."
Fittingly, Williams broke the franchise's single-game rushing record that Davis had held, as well as his single-season touchdown mark with a 13th score. Stewart set a Panthers rookie rushing record with his eighth score.
This was against a defense that entered the game having surrendered only one rushing touchdown the entire season.
Both backs shined on one remarkable series midway through the fourth quarter. Williams opened by running to his right—which is the strength of Carolina's offensive line—for a 41-yard gain. Stewart followed with carries of three and 30 yards.
Williams then capped the series by taking a pitch to the left, stiff-arming Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber (a recurring sight Monday night), and motoring into the end zone for a 16-yard score.
That's four carries, 90 yards, and a touchdown that put Carolina ahead, 31-17, with 8:30 remaining.
That this came against the Bucs (9-4) was inconceivable eight games ago. Carolina was held to 40 rushing yards on 20 carries in that 27-3 loss at Tampa Bay.
"That was an embarrassment," Panthers left guard Travelle Wharton said.
This time, it was Tampa Bay linebacker Barrett Ruud using the same word to describe the kind of performance that was more fitting for the 1976 Bucs during their 0-14 season.
Not only was the rushing defense abysmal, Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith torched the Bucs for 117 yards and a touchdown on nine catches. Smith's early success prevented the Bucs from stacking the box against the run.
"They out-executed us," Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "We didn't have gap integrity. We had a lot of missed tackles. We don't do that. Anybody who knows Buc ball knows that ain't us."
Maybe the Bucs switched uniforms with the Detroit Lions somewhere along the way.
Regardless, the Panthers used their first loss to Tampa Bay as motivation. Having center Ryan Kalil and right tackle Jeff Otah back in the starting lineup didn't hurt either.
"It was a smashmouth type of game, especially for us," Panthers fullback Brad Hoover said. "You're determined to run the ball. We were able to do it at will at times."
The Panthers needed every bit of that yardage to stave off an amazing performance by Bucs wide receiver Antonio Bryant. Out of the league a year ago because of excessive off-field problems, Bryant made his pitch for NFL Comeback Player of the Year with a nine-catch, 200-yard effort.
His one-handed touchdown grab—left-handed, no less—pulled Tampa Bay within eight points with 2:36 left.
The Panthers quickly pulled away after recovering an onside kick attempt, as Williams shed two tackles en route to his 36-yard score (giving him 1,141 yards for the season).
Having to end the regular season versus Denver, the New York Giants, and New Orleans is a daunting challenge, especially with the latter two games on the road. But thanks largely to Williams and Stewart, Carolina's goal of being the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed is within reach.
"The opportunity is right in front of us," Hoover said. "Now it's just up to us to take advantage of it."
This article was originally published on FOXSports.com.
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