CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks’ stock is on the rise.
Behind Wilks’ belief in smash-mouth football and solid, opportunistic defense, Carolina has won three of its last four games and now controls its playoff destiny.
If the Panthers (5-8) win out, they’ll be NFC South champions.
Tampa Bay (6-7) is currently alone in first place, but the Panthers have already beaten the Buccaneers and they’ll meet again in Week 17. A win at Tampa gives the Panthers the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Panthers will also hold a division tiebreaker over the Atlanta Falcons (5-8) if they win out.
“It’s thrilling, just for the men in that locker room, for how hard they work, how dedicated they have been,” Wilks said after Carolina’s first road win of the season, a 30-24 triumph at Seattle. “We found ourselves to be able to work through it. Always talk about don’t allow it to get in the way, whatever it may be.
“It started with the coaching change. I can go on and on with the different things, with players leaving, coaches leaving, whatever. Those men in that locker room found a way to refocus and get it done.”
The big question Panthers owner David Tepper will need to decide in the next few weeks is whether Wilks’ performance has warranted promoting him to the full-time head coaching job.
“My approach is day by day,” Wilks said. “It is just really trying to win another game. I’m not concerned with that.”
Running offense. The Panthers wore down the Seahawks in their own stadium behind a steady dose of running the football. Carolina ran 46 times for 223 yards and held nearly a 19-minute edge in time of possession.
Center Bradley Bozeman said he feels like the Panthers are wearing down opponents.
“You just continue to pound and pound and eventually they start to have a little bit of doubt,” Bozeman said. “You put a little bit of doubt in their minds, and you have to keep it up. … We continued to keep our foot on the gas and continued to drive.”
On a few occasions, the Panthers used a jumbo package they call “Arby’s” that includes eight offensive linemen on the field. Guard Brady Christensen said the package got the name because “we’ve got the meats!” — borrowing a line from the fast-food company’s slogan.
“That’s a lot of meat out there,” he added.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Pass defense. The Panthers allowed Geno Smith to throw for 264 yards and three touchdowns, including an easy one at the end of the game that pulled Seattle to within six points. But there was some consolation that the secondary did intercept Smith twice, leading to 10 points.
WR Terrace Marshall Jr. The former second-round pick made perhaps the catch of the week in the NFL, when he hauled in a pass from Sam Darnold using his legs. The ball got loose in Marshall’s arms and travelled downward forcing him to use his legs to squeeze it tight as he was going to the ground. Seattle coach Pete Carroll challenged the play, but Marshall’s catch was upheld.
“It was great effort on his part,” Wilks said. “When you look at Terrace, we talk about trying to take the next step and we have really seen that with him.”
Fan support. Perhaps the Panthers fan base is a little jaded by five seasons of losing football, but the support has not been there this season. Wilks on Monday pleaded for Panthers fans to come out strong Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose fans typically travel well and tend to nullify a home-field advantage at Bank of America Stadium.
Wilks, a Charlotte native, said he can remember games when the Panthers had the loudest stadium in the league.
WR D.J. Moore was scheduled to have an MRI on his ankle Monday. He was injured while making a block in the fourth quarter Sunday. … DE Brian Burns is dealing with a knee injury, but has been playing through it. … SS Xavier Woods could return this week after being held out against the Seahawks.
2-0 — Darnold’s record as a starter this season. “Any time you can run the ball for 200-plus yards in an NFL football game it makes your job as quarterback a lot easier,” Darnold said. “Most of our pass yards came in the first half. The second half, we were just able to run the football. That’s kind of our identity right now.”
The Panthers have back-to-back home games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions before finishing the season on the road at Tampa Bay and the New Orleans Saints. None of those teams have winning records.