The Carolina Panthers received absolutely the hardest playoff draw possible for a 15-1 team that has homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.
On Saturday night, No. 2 seed Arizona gets to play a flawed Green Bay team that has gone 5-6 since November. On Sunday at 1:05 p.m. in Charlotte, No. 1 seed Carolina gets a Seattle team that not only is the two-time NFC champion but also has gone 7-1 over its past eight games, including a 30-point win over Arizona.
And all that is just fine with Josh Norman.
“You want the tough team, man,” the Panthers Pro Bowl cornerback said Monday. “I don’t know why you want the easy way out. That’s not the way you should live life, taking the easy way out. You always want to do something the hard way, just because it means that much more.”
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I’m not sure I agree with the logic. If I know there’s a 10-mile traffic backup on Interstate 77, I’m going to take back roads instead of waiting in that mess just to prove I can do it the hard way. And I like those “easy” button commercials, because I’d like to push one.
But Norman is right in a larger sense. Some things are worth fighting for and won’t happen any other way, and a Super Bowl title is one of them. The Panthers are back to 0-0 again entering this postseason, and to win it all they will likely have to face Seattle, Arizona and then a hot AFC team, in that order.
Yet the Panthers do have a number of advantages, too, and one of the biggest is they beat Seattle on the road Oct. 18.
That game – in which Carolina came back from a 20-7 deficit and won 27-23 on a touchdown pass from Cam Newton to Greg Olsen – pushed this team to a different level. I am convinced that if Carolina lost that game the Panthers would have lost one or two more, too, and finished something like 12-4.
But that game proved something, and it gave Carolina a confidence injection that has lasted the rest of the season.
“To me, they were the elite of the NFC,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “And going there and being able to win really helped validate who we are as a football team. We still have a long ways to go. But the best part about it, more than anything else, is we’ve proven to ourselves we can do it.”
For all the talk this week about how much the two teams have changed in the past three months, they really haven’t changed much at all.
Same great quarterbacks. Same great defenses. A few injuries and a few tweaks? Sure. But that game remains fresh in everyone’s mind, and there really was a sense of inevitability that the two teams would face each other again.
“It’s cool, man,” Norman said. “Fate gives you these chances to prove yourself worthy.”
The Panthers have been very worthy all season. As safety Roman Harper pointed out when comparing Carolina to Seattle: “We’ve been the better team all year long.”
And that’s true. Despite Russell Wilson’s magic, Seattle has lost six times. Carolina has lost once. The Seahawks were down 9-0 to begin the fourth quarter at Minnesota and escaped only because of a hooked 27-yard field goal in the final minute.
“We don’t shy away from this,” Harper said, adding the game was another opportunity to “show who we are.”
A couple of Carolina’s previous divisional playoff games come to mind when I think about the one coming Sunday. One was very recent – the whipping San Francisco gave the Panthers two years ago in a similar situation to this one.
The other was 19 years ago, when a Dallas team that featuring four future Pro Football Hall of Famers came in sizzling against a Carolina team that had a bye week but not a single Hall of Famer on the roster. Carolina beat Dallas thoroughly that day, giving the Panthers their first-ever playoff victory.
I still believe the Panthers would have been better off had Blair Walsh not hooked that kick. Seattle is a more dangerous threat than Minnesota ever was.
But the Panthers still have the NFL’s (almost assured) MVP, and they have a bunch of players who rested mild injuries during the bye week.
And ultimately, I still believe that the Panthers are going to win.