CHARLOTTE — Veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross said the Panthers want to give their fans an early Christmas present — the team’s first three-game winning streak in three years.
Beating Oakland at home on Sunday would give the players a treat, too — off-days on both Christmas Eve and Christmas.
“My wife’s already been asking me if I’m going to have Christmas Eve off,” Gross said, Wednesday. “I tell her it depends on Sunday.”
It might depend on how the Panthers (5-9) start the game against the Raiders (4-10), who snapped a six-game losing streak last week with a 15-0 win against Kansas City.
The Panthers have had trouble finishing games, but they have had no issues starting them of late.
Over the past four games, the Panthers have scored on at least their first two possessions. They’ve been even more impressive the past two weeks in victories against Atlanta and San Diego.
The Panthers scored on their first five drives to jump to a 23-0 lead against the Falcons, and scored touchdowns on their first three possessions for a 21-0 edge at San Diego.
“I know that’s probably what the Raiders are talking about — stopping us from scoring right away, which is what we’ve been doing,” Gross said. “If we can come out and score and get that thought in their mind, that’s what we’ve been able to do the last couple of weeks, I know that would be to our advantage.”
Gross was right about Oakland’s mindset. But Raiders coach Dennis Allen said keeping the opponent off the board early is important in any road game.
“It’s big for you to weather that initial storm,” Allen said in a conference call with Charlotte reporters. “So that’s something that we’ve got to do a good job of, limiting their offense early in the game and not letting them score points early. That gets your offense off-rhythm. Now they can come after the passer a little bit more. It gets the crowd in the game.”
Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said he draws up a “mini-script” of the first 12 to 16 plays he wants to run each week. He’s not wedded to the script, making changes depending on down and distance.
But Chudzinski has made the right calls early in games over the past month, which has allowed defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to be more aggressive.
“To get a lead and get up on people, I think it helps as far as play-calling goes, but it also helps defensive play-calling, as well,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
The Panthers are 9-point favorites over Oakland, which will play its fifth game on the East Coast this season.
Carolina has not won three consecutive games since closing the 2009 season on a three-game winning streak to finish 8-8. The Panthers twice won two games in a row over the final six games last season, but could not string together a true winning streak.
“You obviously want to win three, four, five in a row. As many as you can,” Rivera said. “Really, it’s just about winning more so than anything else. I really don’t think it’s something that has to be talked about.”
The Panthers have a chance to finish 7-9 — a game better than in Rivera’s first season — and can claim second place in the NFC South by winning their final two games and having Tampa Bay and New Orleans, both 6-8, lose their final two.
Players said all three phases have performed well.
“Somebody cut the lights on,” linebacker James Anderson said. “You walk in the house and you cut the lights on. It finally clicked. Guys started making plays. I don’t know what it took, but I’m glad it happened.”
Because Christmas falls on Tuesday, the players’ normal day off, the Panthers are assured of spending at least part of the holiday with friends or families next week. Rivera gives players Mondays off following wins, so Gross is excited about the possibility of an extended holiday.
“The Raiders have to make a long trip across the country, like we had to last week. I know that can be a challenge,” Gross said. “It would be outstanding to get this third win in a row and close this season off at home with a win and give our fans something to be excited about.”