by Anthony Harrison
After a heartbreaking loss to the Atlanta Falcons last week, your Carolina Panthers capped their nearly perfect regular season with a home-field rout against divisional rivals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on Jan. 3, with a final score of 38-10.
Well. That’s more like it.
With this week’s win, I feel like there are a few things Cats fans have to look forward to.
For one, the Panthers hold the NFC’s No. 1 seed for the first time in franchise history. Hell, the way everyone else’s season ended up, the Panthers hold an unofficial No. 1 seed in the NFL, what with tallying only that single, pitiable loss in Hotlanta.
That means a few different things: Carolina kicks ass against all comers; they play in Charlotte for as long as they survive the conference playoffs; and the Panthers don’t have to play in the first round of the playoffs.
The last fact hits a bittersweet note. We miss another chance to watch our team play, but that lessens my workload a bit.
Playing at home holds numerous advantages. Obviously, the hometown crowd gets to attend, and I figure Charlotte will show up in force and loaded for bear — or for birds, depending how the first round shapes up. Additionally, the team won’t have to travel, and everyone knows any long voyage drains the traveler, no matter the mode of transportation.
But playing in your stadium, the very space where you’re most comfortable in every facet, may be the most beneficial psychological factor.
The Panthers must be comfortable against anyone coming to ruin their hopes for a run at the Super Bowl in the second round of the playoffs. Both teams present different challenges.
This season, the Minnesota Vikings, led by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back/living legend Adrian Peterson, played some of the best ball the Purple People Eaters have ever seen. Of their five losses, four came from teams now in the playoffs, including an extremely close contest with the Arizona Cardinals, the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
The Vikes face the Seattle Seahawks in the wild card round this Sunday. And they worry me.
Carolina beat Seattle at home way back in Week 6 while the doubters and haters still wondered if the Cardiac Cats had what it takes to maintain their momentum down the stretch. That fifth straight win — seeing me bite my nails down to the quick — confirmed in my mind and minds of many others that the Panthers may have the right stuff.
But, as we learned just a week ago, birds play well with a chip on their shoulders.
Coming into the playoffs, the ’Hawks have won six of their past seven games, stumbling only in a surprise loss to the atrocious St. Louis Rams last week. Their latest win against the fearsome Cardinals — “win” being an understatement for the pounding they dished out — confirmed their ability to bounce back against criticism and their potential to make a run at a third straight Super Bowl.
Honestly, I’m more worried about the Seattle team. They showed up the Cards in this past Sunday’s rematch; they may be thirsty for Panther blood if Carolina has to face them again.
But that’s all in the not-too-distant future. For now, let’s get back to the positives.
Another great thing about the ensuing Panthers postseason is the potential to see the team break more and more records, for themselves, for their franchise and for the league.
With each win, the Cats extend the best win-loss tally in Carolina history, as well as the longest home-game winning streak and consecutive games with over 100 rushing yards — 11 and 27, respectively. With each game, the stars and supporting cast of the team get to pad the stats of what’s likely the most infamous season of their careers.
And with each possession, quarterback Cam Newton keeps making history and blowing minds.
With this game and his two rushing touchdowns, he’s tied the record for most career touchdowns earned on the QB’s legs with 43. It took San Francisco 49ers great Steve Young 15 seasons to rack up that many running scores; Scramblin’ Cam did it in five. In those five years, Killa Cam’s proven to be the most productive five-season quarterback in NFL history. He’s also become the first QB to throw more than 30 touchdowns and rush for 10 or more in a single season.
Does anyone remember five years ago when sportswriter Jim Folsom claimed in Bleacher Report that Newton would be the biggest draft bust in history?
I wonder how words taste. He’d know; he’s eating them.
Which leads us to a penultimate thing to look forward to: Awards. Laurels. Wreaths.
Cam Newton will win Most Valuable Player; if he doesn’t, it’s a snub as bad as not awarding the Best Actor Oscar to Bill Murray for his performance in Lost in Translation.
Similarly, Ron Rivera should be a shoo-in for Coach of the Year. He won the honor back in 2013 when the Panthers did only nearly as well as this season, so his 15-1 coaching record and incredible win ratio on his abundant challenges should grant him some strong nods. Besides, who else is there to consider?
Defensive Player of the Year should be more of a toss-up, and I wouldn’t be even slightly surprised if Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt walked away with it, but our demigod linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis Sr. have good cases for their cause. Cornerback Josh Norman’s inspired coverage of most of the best wide-outs could also qualify him in the conversation, but I fear his opera with New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. cost him strong consideration.
Anyway. That’s all we have to look forward to in the short run.
For the future, we have respect and honor.
The Carolina Panthers existed in this strange, inconsistent No-Man’s Land for so long. They’ve had to play with a shoulder increasingly pocked with chips as one solid season would be followed up by a mediocre-at-best campaign.
But I truly believe this squad has legs. This season, critics in the peanut gallery of pro football finally accepted the idea that Charlotte can produce a startling, explosive team.
When this postseason is over and done with, whatever may come of it, I think everyone will have to get used to seeing the Cardiac Cats in the headlines and highlights for seasons to come.
I’ve been waiting for years. And yet I can’t wait to see where we go from here.