Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has cut down on turnovers this season. (Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)
The Panthers were the surprise of the NFC, winning the South and earning their first playoff bid since 2008.
That magical run continues Sunday when they host the 49ers in the divisional playoffs.
But however far Carolina advances in the postseason, its turnaround is proof that a team like Detroit can get over the proverbial hump in one season.
For the Panthers, a confident coach, a talented and improving quarterback and bruising defense led to the turnaround, but there were several bumps and bruises along the way.
Since coach Ron Rivera took over in 2011, the Panthers have steadily improved. They were 2-14 in 2010, 6-10 in 2011 and 7-9 last season. But after a 1-3 start this year, Rivera was on the hot seat.
Then, the Panthers flipped a switch and took on the mentality of their coach, a Bears linebacker from 1984-92.
“The Panthers play like a team whose head coach was a lunch-pail linebacker,” CBS analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Dan Dierdorf said during a conference call.
After a 22-6 loss to the Cardinals in Week 5, the Panthers crushed the Vikings, 35-10. And when they went for two fourth downs on the opening drive, which ended in a touchdown, Rivera earned the nickname “Riverboat Ron.”
The victory kicked off an eight-game winning streak, which included a 10-9 upset in San Francisco in Week 10 and a Monday night victory over New England the following week. The Panthers won 11 of 12 to end the regular season, including a 17-13 victory over the Saints in Week 16 that put them in position to win the NFC South a week later.
“Everyone knew we were better than 1-3 and we’d let teams beat us, rather than lost to them,” left tackle Jordan Gross told the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. “There’s a lot of speeches and a lot of things said throughout the year. Sometimes the right mood strikes you and you say something that’s believable and authentic, and that was the time for me.
“But that’s not what turned the season around. What turned the season around was guys believing in ourselves.”
It helped that several players who suddenly believed in themselves were immensely talented.
The Panthers found their franchise quarterback in the 2011 draft, selecting Auburn’s Cam Newton No. 1 overall. They grabbed their middle linebacker, all-pro Luke Kuechly, in the first round in 2012, and defensive tackles Star Lotulelei (first round) and Kawann Short (second round) in 2013.
The Lions, too, have added talent in the early rounds of recent drafts — quarterback Matthew Stafford in 2009, all-pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh in 2010, defensive tackle Nick Fairley in 2011, left tackle Riley Reiff in 2012, and defensive end Ziggy Ansah and right guard Larry Warford in 2013.
But the difference between the Panthers and Lions this season is Carolina’s talented pieces all worked in harmony while Detroit, according to running back Reggie Bush, lacked the necessary chemistry.
The Panthers defense ranked second in yards allowed, up from 10th in 2012, and led the NFL with 60 sacks. Defensive end Greg Hardy, a sixth-rounder in 2010, led the team with 15 sacks, and defensive end Charles Johnson, a seven-year veteran, had 11. And, all the pressure helped the Panthers intercept 20 passes, tied for fifth in the league.
On offense, Newton took another step forward, setting career highs in completion percentage, touchdown passes and passer rating. And though he had the lowest rushing totals of his three seasons, he added 585 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
Newton also limited the turnovers with 13 interceptions and one lost fumble.
“There’s no bells and whistles to that football team,” CBS analyst and former NFL quarterback Phil Simms said during a conference call. “It’s old fashioned. (Newton) might be in the shotgun. He might run it a little. But it’s, by NFL standards, a simple offense; not a lot of plays, not trying to trick people.
“It’s Cam Newton making physical plays. Rip the ball in there, make this throw, 20 yards down the field throw it between two guys and stick it to the receiver, and it fits him well. That’s why he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.”
But, Newton isn’t ready to call this season a success yet.
“Everyone talks about the great season that myself and others have had,” Newton told the Panthers website. “But we all come to each other and say, ‘There’s nothing worth mentioning unless we have something that we can all share with each other for years and years to come.’ ”
“Those things that I really want, that everyone has set forth for this season, are all in reach.”