Panthers Preview: Playing With House Money
Carolina's latest trip to the playoffs feels a lot different than it did the last time.
In hindsight, the Panthers' 12-4 record last year was a burden.
It brought expectations to a team that hadn't been to the playoffs in five years. It put pressure on a head coach and young quarterback making their first postseason appearance. It made things tenser than they seem to be this time around.
This year's Panthers have won five fewer games, but in many ways, they're better equipped to handle what comes next.
“I think a little bit has to do with experience and understanding," coach Ron Rivera said Tuesday. “The thing is, we’re somewhere a lot of people didn’t expect us to be, so that’s great."
"To be where we are today, these guys worked hard to get here. But at the same time they understand that hey, there aren’t a lot of people who were expecting it, and it’s a good thing.”
Rivera agreed with the notion the Panthers are playing with house money as they get ready for Saturday's Wild Card matchup with the Cardinals. It's a mentality he would prefer his team have, especially now that expectations are starting to creep up.
Seven-win Carolina is a five and a half point favorite over Arizona, even though the Cardinals won 11 games. They started 9-1, but since then, the bottom fell out, especially offensively.
Unless Drew Stanton's knee makes a miraculous recovery in the next two days, Ryan Lindley will continue at quarterback. The third-stringer threw four interceptions in his two losing starts that wrapped up the Cardinals' regular season. Leading rusher Andre Ellington had sports hernia surgery earlier this month, so Arizona's 31st-ranked run game will be led by nondescript backs Kerwynn Williams and Stepfan Taylor.
“At one point in the season, they were considered one of the best, if not the best team in the NFL,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “Just because they haven’t had success doesn’t mean that they can’t have success. We have to do our job to make sure it doesn’t happen."
"They’re going to come in with the mindset, I’m pretty sure, that they have to run the ball. They have a quarterback that’s still young, still learning the offense, and still has a ways to go. But at the end of the day he’s an NFL quarterback and he’s capable of beating us.”
Davis has been part of Carolina's last three playoff teams, but only one of those won a game. 2013 and 2008 each featured NFC South titles, first-round byes, and one-and-done exits. The 2005 Panthers actually won twice before falling at Seattle in the NFC Championship.
Nine years after that run, Davis is the only player on the current roster that's won a playoff game in a Carolina uniform.
“It’s something I’ve been waiting on my rookie year, to have that success of winning multiple playoff games. It’s not about just winning one and being satisfied. We’ve got a lot of work to do around here, and we feel we have the guys in the locker room to get it done,” Davis said.
Before the season, Davis wasn't shy in sharing his belief the Panthers could become the first repeat NFC South champions. He was steadfast even when they were stuck in a two-month winless streak.
Four more wins would equal a Super Bowl trophy, and when asked if he felt the Panthers had that many left in them, Davis remained unwavering.
“I definitely feel like we can win four more games. What would I look like right now telling you, ‘No, I don’t think we’re going to win?’” Davis replied. "But I’m definitely confident in this group. We’re playing at a high level right now and everybody’s bought into the system and what's going on around here."
"Whenever you get a group of guys that buy into what’s going on, and guys staying healthy, we’re probably as healthy right now as we’ve been all season, and that’s key."
While 20 other teams are getting ready for next season, the Panthers are preparing for the playoffs. It's a position few outside of Davis and the locker room could have predicted.
The run-up to last year's playoff game was filled with nervous anticipation. But with house money in their pocket this year, the Panthers are trying to appreciate the wait before they see what kind of hand comes up.
“There’s some teams that haven’t been here in a long time. We’ve been fortunate to do it back-to-back. We got here unconventionally, but we’re here,” Rivera said. "We’re going to savor the moment. The players are going to enjoy it and whatever happens happens.”