Opinion: Excitement builds for Panthers playoff game
Ten weeks ago, I walked into the press room at Bank of America Stadium with a number of veteran reporters who were eager to ask Cam Newton about the possibility of sporting a winning record for the first time in his NFL career.
The Panthers were 3-3 at the time, fresh off a win over the St. Louis Rams. No one possibly could have imagined Carolina would win its next six games and nine of the team's last 10. Nonetheless, today's NFL postseason begins without the Panthers. This season, however, they are enjoying a week off in advance of facing one of the weekend's participants, instead of sitting at home watching the playoffs unfold as spectators.
Most of the journalists on hand for that home victory against the Rams were more interested in discussing Carolina's first divisional contest which would come the following week against Tampa Bay than the one they came to see. But it was that Week 6 victory over Jeff Fisher's squad that foreshadowed this successful run.
The team showed fight, resilience and, yes, maturity that has become customary of a group that would later notch wins over playoff-bound San Francisco and New England. An incredibly physical game, multiple fights broke out on the field, words were exchanged and a St. Louis player was ejected, but through it all, the Panthers emerged victorious.
An embattled coach who was once rumored to be on his way out of Charlotte after starting 1-3 is now one of the favorites to win Coach of the Year. Ironically, his counterpart in the Jan. 12 NFC divisional matchup very well could be his closest competition for the honor. Chip Kelly guided the Philadelphia Eagles to a NFC East title in his first season at the helm this season and is one win over the New Orleans Saints away from booking his flight to Charlotte.
The matchup would not necessarily be a favorable one for Carolina. LeSean McCoy is arguably the most dynamic playmaker in the league. His teammate, DeSean Jackson, is also a terror in open space and Kelly's offense spreads the entirety of the field. At least a half dozen times in the last two weeks, NBC commentator Cris Collinsworth reminded a primetime national audience the width of the field is measured at 53 1/2 yards.
Second-year standout Luke Kuechly and the Panthers' linebackers would have to defend every inch of it should they play against the Eagles.
The alternative would be to play the winner of a Green Bay-San Francisco matchup that promises to be a thriller at Lambeau Field. It would admittedly make for a compelling plot line to see this young team host a playoff game against one of the most storied franchises in football.
Aaron Rodgers, who looked fresh in his return to the field last week, is not someone a team wants to see this time of year. A year ago, the 49ers were in the Super Bowl.
All of the excitement shapes up for an exciting couple weeks for Panthers fans as they watch to see if one of the league's hottest teams can continue its momentum into the postseason.
Staff Writer Daniel Kennedy can be reached at 888-3575, or firstname.lastname@example.org.