Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis has made three previous playoff trips with the Carolina Panthers, including his rookie season in 2005 when Carolina fell a game short of the Super Bowl.
So Davis speaks from experience when he says the Panthers’ 15-1 regular season, while nice, won’t count for much if Carolina isn’t holding the Lombardi Trophy on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
“It’s very gratifying,” Davis said of the most successful regular season in team history. “But it means nothing if we can’t win in the playoffs.”
The Panthers have a bye this week before hosting a divisional-round game Jan. 17 against Seattle, Green Bay or Washington. Win that game and the top-seeded Panthers will host the NFC Championship Game for the first time in the franchise’s 21 years.
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Carolina’s only Super Bowl appearance came after the 2003 season, when Davis was playing safety at Georgia. Davis, the Panthers’ longest-tenured player, is taking a Super Bowl-or-bust approach.
“It’s a great feeling to be 15-1, something that I’ve never been in my career and anybody in this locker room hasn’t been 15-1. It’s good to share that with our brothers, with each other,” Davis said. “At the same time we know we can’t lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s ultimately to win the Super Bowl.”
It’s very gratifying. But it means nothing if we can’t win in the playoffs.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, on being 15-1
Only three players on the Panthers have Super Bowl rings – tight end Ed Dickson and left tackle Michael Oher, who won theirs with Baltimore after the 2012 season, and strong safety Roman Harper, who was a starter on the New Orleans Saints’ 2009 championship team.
Dickson agrees with Davis that no one will care that the Panthers went 15-1 during the regular season if they flame out in the postseason.
“Even if we were 16-0, if you don’t finish it off, it’s a sense of letdown,” Dickson said. “When we started the season off at the beginning, we don’t say, ‘OK, let’s go undefeated.’ That’s not in the grand scheme of things.”
A 20-13 loss to Atlanta in Week 16 cost the Panthers a shot at matching the 1972 Dolphins and 2007 Patriots as the only teams to finish the regular season undefeated. But they are one of seven teams in history to win 15 regular-season games.
But again, Dickson said that will be small solace if the Panthers don’t win Super Bowl 50.
“The only thing that’s going to make that loss to Atlanta feel a little bit better – and we’re still going to be thinking about it – is if you’re hoisting up a trophy at the end. That’s our ultimate goal,” he said. “I’ve been to the top of the mountain. So I want all my brothers, all my family members here in this locker room to experience that.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who won a Super Bowl as a player with the 1985 Chicago Bears, says his team’s accomplishments should not be dismissed if the Panthers fall short.
“A lot of people look at it that way and I don’t think that’s fair. You can’t take away what you’ve accomplished,” he said. “Now you get in the playoffs it’s a whole different story. The playoff season could be diminished. We’ve put ourselves in position and now it’s about, ‘What do you want to do from here?’ ”
The Panthers are in the playoffs for the third year in a row after winning an unprecedented three consecutive NFC South crowns. No team had won the South as many as two times in a row before the Panthers’ current run.
But this is the first time the Panthers have had the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
“We’ve got one road game possibly in front of us, and that’s a good one to travel for,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We’ve got to win two games, then you’re going to be in the Super Bowl. And both of them are going to be at home. So it’s a good position to be in. We’ve got to take advantage of it.”
We’ve got to win two games, then you’re going to be in the Super Bowl. And both of them are going to be at home. So it’s a good position to be in. We’ve got to take advantage of it.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen
Rivera has tweaked the Panthers’ bye-week schedule to make it more like a regular week of practice. After a day off Tuesday, the Panthers are slated to practice the next three days.
“Just because we don’t have a game this week, we still have to prepare and do the best we can to prepare for all the different circumstances of whoever we play,” Olsen said. “And it’s going to be nice to kind of sit back and let everybody else beat up on each other and see how things fall.
“I don’t think we change our approach. I don’t think we change our style of play. This is who we are. This formula works for us. We just have to do it.”
Davis was a backup on the Panthers team that lost to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game after the 2005 season. He started on the 2008 and 2013 squads that went 12-4 in the regular season before being knocked out in the divisional round.
He was asked whether the current team has a different feel.
“I definitely hope so because we haven’t made it to the Super Bowl since I’ve been here,” Davis said. “I feel like we have the team that we need to get the job done. It’s just all about playing well on Sunday and playing the best regardless of who we have to face. That’s what it’s going to boil down to for these next three or four weeks.”
Super Bowl or bust?
The Panthers are the seventh team to win at least 15 regular-season games. The past four came up short of a Super Bowl championship:
Lost divisional round, 37-20, to Giants
Lost Super Bowl, 17-14, to Giants
Lost AFC Championship, 41-27, to Patriots
Lost NFC Championship, 30-27, to Falcons
Won Super Bowl, 46-10, over Patriots
Won Super Bowl, 38-16, over Dolphins