Playoff Push Goes Beyond This Season

Sunday's winner-take-all game against the Falcons is a step toward what the Panthers are trying to build.

With the Panthers nearing the end of their 20th year, Jerry Richardson is still waiting to check off the two biggest items on his NFL owner bucket list: a Super Bowl victory and consecutive winning seasons. 

Earlier this month, neither looked possible. But both still are. Sort of. 

First thing's first, of course. The Panthers have to win the de facto NFC South title game Sunday in Atlanta to get into the playoffs. If they do, they'll become the first team to go back-to-back in the division, and it'd be the first time Carolina has punched postseason tickets in two straight seasons.

“We’re trying to develop something that we can carry on not just this year, something that we can continue year after that and year after that,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. "That’s the goal right now, but we know it all starts with taking care of this game that we have this weekend."

While the Panthers were tail spinning during a six-game losing skid last month, there was some thought that they should start focusing on next year. But their late-season rally showed why thoughts like that are a bit silly. 

In the NFL, a winning culture is a rare thing. And it's something Richardson has been chasing for two decades. He's long-admired the Steelers, who have won more Super Bowls (six) and played in more conference championship games (15) than any team in history. Since the Steelers had a 62-year head start, it's not an apples to apples comparison, but it's what Richardson aspires to. 

Before coming to Carolina this offseason, receiver Jerricho Cotchery spent three years in Pittsburgh. And while the Steelers went on a rare slump, failing to make the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, the expectations were impossible to miss. 

“They have a saying over there, ‘the standard is the standard.’ The guys before them set the standard, so anytime you step on the field, if you don’t meet that standard, that’s not good enough. They expect to be playing winning football this time of year,” Cotchery said.

When the Panthers tore down their receiving corps and made conservative financial commitments this spring, they weren't necessarily screaming, "We're trying to win a Super Bowl this season!" Yet the moves were pragmatic. And they weren't necessarily a white flag for 2014. Instead, they were made with a longer game in mind. 

"I think they’re building the right thing around here," Cotchery said.  "They’ve got a good group of guys that you can win some games with, and years down the road, you can look back on and say, ‘Ok, this is what we’re looking for.’" 

"Now it’s about getting the young guys to embrace that, because that’s where it starts. Put the right people in place, make some history and try to create a legacy for this organization."

A Panthers' win Sunday would still leave them below .500. And since the NFL only counts regular-season games in win totals, 7-8-1 is the best Carolina can finish in the official record books. But back-to-back winning seasons is still possible if you ask coach Ron Rivera, ever the optimist. 

If the Panthers win three playoff games, they will get to 10-8-1. That will also get them to the Super Bowl, and one win away from completing Richardson ultimate dream. 

But again, first thing's first. 

"You think about a lot of things, and you hope to get opportunities,” Rivera said. "It’s all a moot point if we don’t take care of business on Sunday."

Categories: Black and Blue Review 2, Panthers