Opinion: Youthful Carolina defies expectations

Dec. 24, 2013 @ 12:47 PM

Two weeks after he was outdueled in a primetime showdown on national television, Cam Newton helped the Carolina Panthers erase the memory of that blowout loss Sunday with a win over those same New Orleans Saints.
Now the Panthers are one win away from clinching the NFC South division title and a bye through the first round of the playoffs. That’s right. A team that had not boasted a winning record since 2008 is bound for the postseason.
Once Carolina arrives, do not be surprised if this group makes some noise while it’s there. Playing free and loose, as if aware the pressure is off them, the linebackers in Charlotte are flying around making plays. Newton is quietly putting together one of the most solid seasons by a quarterback in the 2013 campaign. The maturation of Ron Rivera's team has been stunning.
All they have to show for that effort is 10 wins in 11 games and a chance to lock up the No. 2 seed in the NFC. What are the potential implications of the Panthers' tussle with hapless Atlanta?
For starters, the squad would get a much-needed rest as the players watch four of their conference competitors beat up on each other. The following week, Carolina would welcome one of the two winners from the Wild Card round to Bank of America Stadium for the franchise's first home playoff game in the Newton era.
A fan base that is already growing exponentially would create an electric environment for the "Cardiac Cats," as some have taken to calling them. If nothing else, the Panthers have been remarkably entertaining this season, and the excitement that pervades the Tar Heel State is indicative of how far the franchise has come since languishing in mediocrity.
The Panthers have already won. They have nothing to prove. Skeptics — including yours truly — said Newton was not the type of quarterback that could take his team to the next level. He proved those naysayers wrong.
Several called into question the adequacy of head coach Ron Rivera. When the team started the season 1-3, there were calls for his job. He answered the call by ripping off an unprecedented eight consecutive wins.
Still others mentioned the damage former general manager Marty Hurney left in his wake of his departure in 2012. But the roster is made up of mostly Hurney signings and draft picks. Now, few teams in the league boast of Carolina's talent.
As this team continues to defy expectations, perhaps there remains a concern the young Cats are not quite ready for the spotlight of the postseason. But hypothetically, say the Panthers do not secure their first playoff victory in eight years. A 12-win season and an upward trajectory paralleled by few teams around the league is more than most anyone saw before the season started.
Then again, Rivera's squad is in the business of defying expectations. In the tournament, anything can happen.

Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or kennedy@tvilletimes.com.