On Sunday, the Carolina Panthers won their fifth straight game and this came against the San Francisco 49ers, 10-9. A productive ground game, strong special teams play and a stingy, physical defense all contributed to the victory.

In their four previous wins, the Panthers scored a minimum of 30 points and with its win in Week 8, it was the first time they had been higher than .500 since 2008. The Panthers entered the season with hopes of a playoff run but got off to a bumpy start, going 1-3, before turning things around in Week 5.

Many would say after Sunday’s win, this team has arrived.

A lot of their improved play and turnaround can be attributed to third-year quarterback, Cam Newton. A slice of play can be seen from Sunday with his 16 for 32, 169 yards, zero touchdowns and one pick along with seven carries for 17 yards.

With his maturity and better football, he has taken this team to a higher level, but there’s also the Panthers’ defense.

It sits at the top of the league as it only gives up 13.2 points and 82 yards rushing per game. Rewind one year ago and that line read 22.7 points per game and 110.1 yards ground yards. This group is young and against the 49ers, three rookies started: A.J. Klein (linebacker) Star Lotulelei (tackle) and Melvin White (cornerback). They have not given up more than 15 points over the five previous games and only have allowed just a single first-half touchdown all year.

As we enter Week 11, the Panthers seem to be in a good spot for the playoffs.

Currently at 6-3, they sit one game behind the New Orleans Saints (7-2). They are ranked at No. 5 for the NFC and CBSSports’ Will Brinson believes they have emerged as a Super Bowl contender.

But they have one hurdle in their way: a tough upcoming schedule. Take a look at their remaining games:

Nov. 18: New England Patriots (7-2)
Nov. 24: at Miami Dolphins (4-4)
Dec. 1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-8)
Dec. 8: at New Orleans Saints (7-2)
Dec. 15: New York Jets (5-4)
Dec. 22: New Orleans Saints (7-2)
Dec. 29: at Atlanta Falcons (2-7)

These games are considerably more challenging than the ones prior to the 49ers win including the New York Giants, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the St. Louis Rams and yes, the Atlanta Falcons. At the start of the season based on their schedule, the Panthers knew they would be facing 16 teams that had a 2012 combined record of 138-116-2, according to NFL.com.

Now they will go against a tough and improving New England Patriots team next Monday–a team with one of the better defenses it has faced to-date. A quick look at their other remaining games could have the Panthers going 3-4 (see two Saints losses, the Patriots and one more loss) but a different scenario could have them at 9-7 for the wild card playoff spot.

History may be on the Panthers’ side. Rewind to the last two seasons–namely their end–and the Panthers have gotten better. In 2012, they won their last five of six games and in 2011, they won four of the last six.

Should they get hot again at the end of the season, barring let’s say a split with the Saints and a win against the Patriots, this could have them at 11-5 and on the path to a coveted postseason.

For now, their play suggests they can make it to the playoffs but stranger things have happened.