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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) A four-game winning streak has Ron Rivera feeling optimistic.
Carolina's third-year head coach said Monday he's confident the Panthers can reach the postseason.
The Panthers are 5-3 at the season's midway point, only a game behind the division-leading New Orleans Saints in the NFC South, after a 34-10 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
"I think we can be a playoff team because of the things that we've done and because of the way we're playing," Rivera said. "If we had played like this, consistent all the way through, who knows? We have a great opportunity and a challenge in front of us. The chances can be limitless. But we have to play that way. Just because we're doing it now doesn't mean it is automatic."
Never mind that Carolina's five wins have come against teams with a combined 8-33 record. Or that Carolina's most notable win came against the St. Louis Rams, who are only 3-6.
Rivera said it's tough to win any game in this league. Case in point: Seattle needed overtime Sunday to beat winless Tampa Bay.
"You play who you're supposed to play," Rivera said. "You sit there and you look at Atlanta. You can't tell me they are a 2-6 team."
The road is about to get tougher for the Panthers.
Carolina travels to San Francisco (6-2) next Sunday, then hosts the New England Patriots (7-2) on a Monday night. Plus, the Panthers still have two games remaining with the Saints.
Rivera said the focus right now is solely on the 49ers, a team that is playing some pretty good football as well. San Francisco has won five consecutive games following a 1-2 start.
"It will give us a good indication of where we are," Rivera said.
He gave players the day off Monday; they weren't available for comment.
"I think a lot of people are doubting us and whatnot," Panthers tackle Jordan Gross said Sunday. "But we know how good we are, and we've just got to go out there every week and prove it. We are relevant, and all we've got to do is just worry about our assignments and worry about holding each other accountable day-in and day-out, and just keep clicking on Sunday."
There probably aren't a lot of NFL coaches who would mention the playoffs after eight games.
But then not every coach is as outwardly positive as Rivera, who is 18-22 since taking over the Panthers in 2011.
"I'm confident in who our guys are, and I'm an optimist," Rivera said.
The Panthers are first in the league in time of possession and they have allowed the second-fewest points on defense. They're also playing smart football: Only four teams have fewer penalties.
The Panthers have scored at least 30 points in each of their last four games, outscoring opponents 130-48 in that span.
Carolina has finished strong over the past two seasons under Rivera after starting 1-5 in 2011 and 1-6 last season.
He said the difference this year is the Panthers have consistently made plays in the clutch in winning five of their last six games.
"It feels like a team that has an opportunity, has a chance to go forward and be better. We're not anywhere where we need to be," Rivera said. "There is a lot for us to do - and a lot for us to learn."