Still time to jump on Panthers’ bandwagon

Jan. 01, 2014 @ 03:27 AM

The Carolina Panthers’ bandwagon is once again getting pretty crowded, but climb aboard — there’s plenty of room still, and at this rate, it may be moving along for a few more weeks.

North Carolina’s lone NFL franchise (we don’t have to share with South Carolina, do we?) is back in the football post-season after a five-year playoff drought. With Sunday’s nail-biting 21-20 win over the Falcons in Atlanta, the Panthers finished the regular season with a 12-4 record. This year’s team joined the 1996, 2003 and 2008 squads as division winners (the NFC South) and, in doing so, set things up nicely for what could be an extended post-season run: Carolina earned a first-round playoff bye. They’ll rest this weekend while the wild-card teams are battling it out, then host a game in two weeks at Bank of America Stadium in downtown Charlotte.

A win there, and the Panthers be playing for the NFC title and the team’s second trip to the Super Bowl — and what a journey that will have been.

Remember, of course, this team started the season 1-3. Head coach Ron Rivera’s head has been in the guillotine so long (starting last season) that his firing at some point during this season was almost a foregone conclusion. Star quarterback Cam Newton, the former Heisman winner from Auburn, was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year in 2011. But he seemed lost and certainly as frustrated as fans have been as he, and the team, struggled last year and into this year.

Still, the team stuck with Rivera. They said, and fans believed, that ultimately the potential he and Newton spoke of longingly last year would come to fruition.

The Panthers have certainly won some ugly games, but they’ve at least won.

Newton is a big reason, as is linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly, the second-year pro, joins Newton and three other Panthers (fullback Mike Tolbert, center Ryan Kalil and defensive end Greg Hardy, who had a team record four sacks on Sunday) as 2014 Pro Bowl selections. The five honorees are the most the team has had since 1996, when the Panthers placed seven members on the NFC Pro Bowl squad. (This year’s Pro Bowl teams will be “drafted” by Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders, so if the Panthers miss qualifying for Feb. 2’s Super Bowl, we may actually see Kuechly blitzing Newton in that all-star game…a scary proposition.)

Kuechly, last year’s defensive rookie of the year, anchors the league’s second-best defense this season. He’s a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s a most valuable piece of a defense which has consistently rankled and upset opponents’ offenses. The result? Eleven wins in the last 12 games. That’ll not only get you a divisional crown, but it has pundits saying: with one of the league’s strongest defenses, the Panthers are packaged just right for a Super Bowl appearance.

First things first, though. The last time Carolina won a divisional crown, they came off the bye week and dropped an embarrassing game to the Arizona Cardinals in Charlotte. And this time around, star receiver Steve Smith, the Panthers’ game-changer, will be nursing a sprained knee ligament.

But with an extra week to heal and prepare, all eyes will be on Charlotte, and the Panthers, on Jan. 12 — and, we hope, the week after.

 

This editorial originally appeared in The Sanford Herald