|Panthers focus on wrapping up NFC South title|
|Published Thursday, December 26, 2013 8:08 am|
This is the most wonderful time of the year to be a Panther.
Carolina is within a game of clinching the NFC South championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs. After dispatching New Orleans 17-13 last week, the Panthers don’t lack incentive to lock down both in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Atlanta.
“It ain’t difficult” to figure, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “It makes us even hungrier, because if we get this win, it’s a first-round bye and it gets us closer to our goal, which is the Super Bowl.”
“That’s one of the best things that we’ve got going, but for the most part we’ve still got a lot of business left at hand and we’re not going to be satisfied just being in if we have an opportunity to get a good seed,” head coach Ron Rivera said.
The Panthers (11-4) used stifling defense and a last-minute touchdown drive to grab the division lead from New Orleans and secure their ninth win in 10 games. After a 1-3 start that fueled speculation about Rivera’s job security, Carolina is playing its best football at the right time.
“When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people that were jumping off the bandwagon,” said quarterback Cam Newton, who capped the 65-yard game-winning drive with a 14-yard pass to Dominik Hixon with 23 seconds left. “It was a lot of finger-pointing and saying, ‘I told you so.’ But as a team we stuck together and didn’t veer off and had faith in each other.”
Said linebacker Luke Kuechly, who set a franchise record with 24 tackles against the Saints: “It’s awesome. It’s the thing we’ve worked for the whole year – to be in the situation at the end of the season to be in the playoffs. We started rough but we came back and played strong at the end.”
The Panthers have been resourceful, too. Hixon, whose game-winning catch was his first touchdown in Carolina, signed with the Pathers expecting to compete for the third receiver position, but lost ground to Ted Ginn Jr. in preseason due to injury. When Steve Smith went down last week with a knee injury, Hixon stepped up.
“I like winning ball games,” Hixon said. “Whatever it takes to win, I like being that team player for whatever they need me to do.”
That attitude has worked during the Panthers’ hot streak. With one week of regular season preparation remaining, there’s another goal to chase.
“We know it’s going to be a different kind of week, but we’re ready for it,” Munnerlyn said. “We know what’s at stake is the division. I’ll get to enjoy Christmas with my family, so we’ve got to come in and get to work.”
Send this page to a friend