The NFC was supposed to belong to the Seattle Seahawks once again and the Green Bay Packers were also considered one of the best teams in the NFC. The Cowboys were expected to be back after a remarkable 2014 season. What about the Panthers? They’ve won the NFC South three years in a row and there has never been a repeat division champion in the NFC South. The Panthers had their best season in franchise history. Let’s rewind the tape and look back at how they got to Santa Clara for the big game
1. Week 5, at Seattle– It was a playoff rematch from a season ago and the Panthers had revenge on the mind entering this one. There was a lot of chatter heading into this game because the Panthers had been labeled as a team with a weak schedule because their first four games were all against teams who didn’t make the playoffs the year before. When these two teams battle, it’s hard hitting and physical and this didn’t disappoint. Seattle looked to hand the Panthers their first loss of the year. Then came the fourth quarter. Cam Newton threw for 162 yards in the fourth quarter alone and wound up finding Greg Olsen down the middle for a touchdown to give the Panthers a huge victory in Seattle of all places. This moved the Panthers to a perfect 5-0 mark, the first in franchise history.
2. Week 7, vs Indianapolis– Monday Night Football was the game for these two teams. It was a battle of two overall number one picks in their respected draft classes in Cam and Andrew Luck. The Panthers looked to walk away with this game early one, then came back the Indianapolis Colts. Luck led them to a score and then a field goal to send them into overtime. I remember this game and seeing the Panthers defense struggle to rush the passer and they could get pressure with blitzing and sending the house. Though they struggled, they picked Andrew Luck off to set Cam and the offense up to kick a field goal and they escaped with a 29-26 victory.
3. Week 8, vs Packers– The reigning MVP was in town and the Packers were looking to bounce back after an embarrassing loss to the Denver Broncos the week before. The Panthers were underdogs in this game and the Panthers got off to a very good start in this one, scoring 24 unanswered points in the second quarter to give them a 27-7 lead at the half. It looked as if it were deja vu all over again because the Packers stormed back to get themselves back into the game. The Panthers defense held their ground and picked Aaron Rodgers off late in the game to seal the deal and win yet again. They were 8-0 and sitting comfortably atop the NFC.
4. Week 13, at Saints– Over the years, the Panthers have had their struggles in New Orleans and that looked to be the case again for them. The Saints got hot early on and stayed consistent on offense throughout the game. The Panthers defense was struggling to stop Brees, they gave up a lot of big plays down the field and they struggled to get off the field. To me, this is where Cam Newton had one of his MVP moments as he picked the team up and carried them on his shoulders. For the Panthers to win, it would have to be with the offense and Cam leading them down the field and that’s exactly what happened. They won a shootout, 42-38 and were 12-0.
5. Week 15, at Giants– Coming into this game, we all were looking forward to seeing two of the best battle on the field. Odell Beckham and Josh Norman, one of the best receivers against arguably the top corner in the league today. Battle was an understatement. They fought all game long and it resulted in many unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. The Panthers were hot early on. Cam continued to do what he had been all year and he shined throughout. The Panthers had a 28 point lead and then the Giants came back but as they have all year, the Panthers found a way to pull away and win, 38-35 to improve to 14-0.
6. Divisional Playoffs, Seattle– After a 15-1 season, the Panthers were the top seed in the NFC and had that lovely first-round bye. For the second straight year, they would have to battle the Seahawks to get to where they wanted to be. Normally, teams with a bye always come out rusty and that was far from the case with the Panthers. They scored 31 unanswered before the half and were simply dominating. The second half came around and Seattle scored 24 unanswered but it wasn’t enough to come back and win.
7. NFC Championship– It came down to the top two teams in the NFC for a chance to get to the Super Bowl. The Cardinals and Panthers. All week, the talk was about Carolina and how they struggled in the game against the Seahawks and rightfully so. They took all that chatter personally and got off to yet another quick start and the defense did its part too. They forced six turnovers on the Cardinals and never let Arizona back into the game at all. This was their most complete win of the season.