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>"It's nice to get a win. But we played a little ugly," WR Steve Smith said. "But to play ugly in the beginning and still come out and win shows what we're capable of doing. We still haven't put together an outstanding game. We keep putting together these average halves of football. We have to come out and play a whole lot better."

The Carolina Panthers can now breathe a collective sigh of relief after reaching the playoffs for the first time since 1996 by winning the NFC South.

With Sunday's 20-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, the Panthers snapped a three-game losing streak and in so doing have avoided the ultimate late-season collapse.

But in reality, the Panthers know they need to play much better then they have over the last four weeks if they hope to make some noise in the postseason.

Carolina's only win in the past four weeks came Sunday against an Arizona team that entered the game 3-10 and ranked last in the league in points scored on offense and points allowed on defense. There were a lot of tense moments for the Panthers throughout, and it wasn't until John Kasay connected on a 49-yard field goal with four seconds remaining that the Panthers could exhale.

"I think that winning the division is going to take a lot of pressure off the guys now," strong safety Mike Minter said. "Now we can relax and go play some football. I think we were pressing to get this win so we could win the division. Now we're going to relax and have some fun."

And several plays will relax this week when the Panthers host the Detroit Lions. The Panthers could be without as many as five starters who might sit out to rest injuries while getting healthy for the playoffs.

Clearly, the Panthers have their flaws, not the least of which is their habit of turning the ball over. Carolina had two more turnovers on Sunday and remain a minus-7 in the takeaway-giveaway category for the season.

The Panthers haven't run the ball effectively since Stephen Davis suffered an ankle injury six weeks ago, and the passing game seems to be growing too reliant upon receiver Steve Smith.

On defense, Carolina allowed an Arizona team that ranked 30th in the league in rushing to run for 170 yards and a rookie quarterback making his first start to lead a pair of long touchdown drives and control the clock for most of the first half.

"It's nice to get a win. But we played a little ugly," Smith said. "But to play ugly in the beginning and still come out and win shows what we're capable of doing. We still haven't put together an outstanding game. We keep putting together these average halves of football. We have to come out and play a whole lot better."

When asked if the Panthers should be considered a dangerous football team heading into the playoffs, Minter said, "We have two weeks to go and that will determine how dangerous we are.

"So I think guys understand that. They understand we have a long way to go before we can be considered dangerous in the playoffs. We have a long way to go and a lot of work needs to be done."

Head coach John Fox likes that his players are unsatisfied with their recent play. "That is a great attitude in my estimation," Fox said. "It's something that we have two weeks to improve upon so we can make sure we are at our best when we start (the playoffs).

"We are going to do everything in our power to do that. I just think we need to continue to improve. There's an old adage -- if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. And you can't stay the same."

Panthers left tackle Todd Steussie knows that.

A veteran of playoff games, Steussie was one of several players who donned an NFC South champion T-shirt and hat in the locker room following the game.

"Hopefully we get on a little roll from here," Steussie. "It's great to win the division championship. But hopefully that's not the only thing we have written on our cap after the season is over."

SERIES HISTORY: 3rd meeting. Series tied 1-1. In the last meeting on Sept. 15 of last season, the Panthers routed the Lions 31-7 at Ericsson Stadium registering six sacks and three forced fumbles.


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