CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The Carolina Panthers can become the second team in NFL history to make the postseason with a losing record in a non-strike-shortened season.

Coach Ron Rivera would prefer not to talk about that though.

Rivera said he wants his players to focus on Sunday's game against Tampa Bay — and not the convoluted NFC South playoff picture — following Carolina's biggest win of the season, a 41-10 victory in New Orleans that catapulted the Panthers back into the playoff hunt.

In other words, forget what he said two weeks ago.

Coming out of the bye, Rivera stepped out of character and openly discussed Carolina's chances of winning the NFC South if it could win out, hoping to motivate his players. That's a mistake the fourth-year coach probably won't make again after the Panthers (4-8-1) got thumped by Minnesota, 31-13.

"We're facing Tampa — and we have to beat Tampa," Rivera said.

The 2010 Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs with a 7-9 record. The scenario for the Panthers qualifying at 7-8-1 is not as farfetched as you might think.

If the Panthers win their final three games — against Tampa Bay and Cleveland at home and Atlanta on the road — and the Saints lose one of their remaining games, the Panthers will repeat as NFC South champions.

Carolina has renewed confidence following its first win in 63 days, a game that prompted a universal "where did that come from?" from an otherwise frustrated fan base.

"That's not far from the feeling here" in our locker room, center Ryan Kalil said with a laugh.

The dominating performance has given the Panthers new hope that maybe, just maybe, they've started to figure things out.

The Panthers scored on their first three possessions and jumped to a 24-3 halftime lead — and then seemed to take out a season's worth of frustrations against the Saints on both sides of the ball.

"When you execute like that, it's fun to watch and when you don't, it's hard to watch," quarterback Cam Newton said after Sunday's win. "So as an offense, my job is to put up points any which way possible, and when the offensive line is playing as well as they did, and our running backs are running like they were, and our guys are catching the ball like they were, it's hard to lose."

The fourth-year quarterback had been in the worst slump of his career with nine interceptions and only six touchdown passes during the team's six-game losing streak.

He broke out in a big way against the Saints, throwing for 226 yards and three TDs and snapping a string of eight straight games with an interception.

Rivera attributed Newton's performance to recent stability on the offensive line, confidence from scoring touchdowns early, and offensive coordinator Mike Shula's decision to use the no-huddle offense early on.

The no-huddle is something that worked well for the Panthers early in the season.

"When it's on, we are pretty good at it," tight end Greg Olsen said.

The defense, led by coordinator Sean McDermott and his staff, was brilliant, too, holding Drew Brees without a touchdown until the waning moments of the fourth quarter.

Rivera said the danger now is looking ahead and not focusing on the task at hand. He thinks the Panthers might have got caught up in that earlier this year after going 12-4 last season and earning a first-round bye in the 2013 playoffs.

"I wouldn't be surprised because of the expectations, and the talk about it," Rivera said. "We came off a good year and had some pretty good pieces in place. But the emphasis has to be don't look at who we play, don't look at the end of the race — just run the race."