CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It didn’t take long to calibrate the excitement of a city.
While three franchises — Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, and Indianapolis Colts — all needed extensions to sell out their ticket allotment and avoid local blackouts for their first-round games, Panthers fans sold out Bank of America Stadium in three minutes.
"That’s what five years of waiting will do. That’s what 11 wins in your last 12 to end the season will do.
"We’re all past due," quarterback Cam Newton said. "When I say we, I mean the team, the fans — no matter if you’re in South Carolina or North Carolina — we’ve all been waiting on this moment and we all have to seize the moment."
The Panthers are used to being at home watching the playoffs this weekend, not sitting around waiting for the wildcard rounds to determine who will visit them in the second round.
The idea looked laughable after a 22-6 loss in Arizona during Week 4, but the Panthers enter the playoffs as hot as anyone in the NFL. They had a shot to do this in previous years but went just 2-12 in games decided by seven points or less over the past two years. Over their last 12 games, though, they are 5-0 in those games decided by seven points or less and Cam Newton’s led them on game-winning drives in three of those games.
"There’s games we’ve played in the past where we’ve led in the fourth quarter and we’ve gotten down and all the sudden here we go again and that hasn’t been the case this season," center Ryan Kalil said. "We’ve beaten some good teams at the end there, and I think that really helps with your confidence and your belief. That’s really been the difference this year, guys just believing especially offensively when we get the ball and we need a score, we’ll get it done. And that’s what we’ve done."
They’ll have to have a few more of those efforts in the playoffs, too, if they want to achieve their goals. Winning the division was "satisfying but not satisfying," according to their head coach, and their main goals loom on the horizon. Simply getting into the playoffs is where this franchise was supposed to be in his third year he said.
"Every team you play is going to be talented. There’s a reason they’re in the playoffs and by the time were playing you’re in the final eight, the top quarter of the league. So it’s about how we play, do you make the plays?" tight end Greg Olsen said. "Each game is going to come down to a handful of plays. The margin for error is very small, the margin of victory is very small, so it really is about focusing in on us and that’s what this week has been about."
Three different opponents could await — the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers or San Francisco 49ers — after the bye week. If the Eagles lose at home to the Saints, the Panthers will face the winner of the Packers-49ers game. Rivera said all the cutups, breakdowns, and other scouting will be done by Saturday night, so they can begin to insert game plan as soon as they know their opponent.
For the players’ part, though, the opponent matters little.
"We shouldn’t [care]. We don’t have any control over it," Newton said. "We have to worry about ourselves first. I feel like if were playing our best, there’s really no team that can stop us."
As a potential opponent builds momentum with a victory, this week has been about tidying up deficiencies on both sides of the ball for the Panthers. Specifically, practice was heavily red zone focused on offense to start the practice week on Wednesday.
"Good teams finish in the red zone," Brandon LaFell said. "All good teams get six instead of field goals."
They’ve also focused on the fundamentals in the running game, which has been lackluster in the second half of the season. The offense, in particular, has struggled in their last two outings, and Newton took credit for much of that as he’s frequently missed open receivers with overthrows that have stalled drives in recent weeks.
"I’m going to continue to do the things that have gotten me to this point. I need to be better, and I understand that," Newton said. "Not missing throws I’m capable of making — the offensive production has to be better."
That’s why the win in Atlanta was so critical. It not only assured a bye week that could be critical for a Panthers offense to clean up things but also, since they had the earliest regular season bye week in the league, gives them a break after 12 games in 12 weeks. Everyone gets the chance to get back healthy — specifically wide receiver Steve Smith who is expected to be back after sitting out the regular season finale with a sprained PCL, a game Newton had his second lowest passing output of the season in.
"It’s much needed because we had an early bye week and we’ve been rolling ever since," LaFell said. "For us to have a lot of guys with nicks and bruises and ankle injuries, to give them a week off and to get healed up, especially [Smith] a guy we really need if we’re going to go all the way."
There’s no question they’ve got a Super Bowl caliber defense, but to go all the way, they’ll need the offense to hold up its end of the bargain and be better than it has in recent weeks. Newton’s always been a big game player and won a national championship in college, but this is a new stage even for him and he believes he still has a lot to prove to earn the tag as one of the elites when it matters most.
"This is going to be a new venture for me and I’m going to try to make the most of it," he said. "Everyone wants to have that tag with their name but its something new. I know that going into it and I just have to prepare the right way and listen to coaches and trust coaches."