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Sorensen: Panthers playoff berth was hard to envision in September

It was Sept. 15 and Carolina had just lost to Buffalo. The Panthers allowed a rookie quarterback with no timeouts to beat them with a game-winning drive. Fans in Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium jumped and yelled, spontaneous and loud.

Fans in the Carolinas waited for next year. Their team again was 0-2, again had lost to a lesser team, and head coach Ron Rivera again had drawn in and played safe when a bold move could have won.

It was tough, on that day and in that place, to envision fans of the Panthers becoming thrilled about their team this season or perhaps any season.

But this is Bank of America Stadium on Sunday after Carolina’s aggravating, emotional and absolutely thrilling 17-13 victory against New Orleans.

As Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400” pours out of the stadium’s speakers, fans dance. Soaked from the monsoon that drenched them earlier, they jump with their hands in the air, finally accepting what they have seen.

What they’ve seen, from an offense that had not converted a third down (the Panthers were 0 for 9) all afternoon, was a finish already part of Carolina lore.

Trailing 13-10, the Panthers begin their final drive from their 35 with 55 seconds remaining. Cam Newton hits receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for 37 yards, hits tight end Greg Olsen for 14 yards and, with 23 seconds remaining, hits Domenik Hixon for 14 yards and the game-winning touchdown.

The victory means the Panthers are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. If they beat Atlanta in Atlanta in their final regular season game Sunday, they win the NFC South. Their reward will be a first-round bye and a second-round playoff game in Charlotte Jan. 11 or 12.

“The way we are winning games is a beautiful thing,” says safety Mike Mitchell.

When Sunday’s result becomes official, Mitchell sprints to the west end of the field and decides, on the fly, to throw his helmet into the bleachers. He fails.

“I was like 20 yards away,” says Mitchell. “I obviously need to lift some weights. My shoulder was bothering me a little bit. I need to get stronger.”

Did you pick the helmet up and throw it again?

“I forgot about it,” says Mitchell. “It’s probably still laying there.”

Olsen runs onto the field with both arms in the air. Ginn skips off the field into the tunnel like a kid playing a game. Center Ryan Kalil pumps his fist.

“I think the moral of the story is that we came through when we needed to come through and that’s what good teams do,” says Kalil. “They win when they have to win. At the end we did a great job of being at our best when our best was needed. I wish we didn’t have to make it so hard on ourselves. But I guess we gave everybody an entertaining game.”

Head coach Ron Rivera responds the way he always does. He shakes the hand of the opposing coach and he looks into the crowd for his wife, Stephanie.

“She’s a big part of it for me,” Rivera says.

After the Buffalo loss, Rivera’s job was in jeopardy. This isn’t speculation.

He wasn’t going to be fired during the season. But this is his third season as a head coach, and unless the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time in his tenure, or at least made a run at the playoffs, Rivera was out.

Now he’s a candidate, perhaps the leading candidate, for Coach of the Year.

Rivera won’t say he is a candidate. He won’t say, “I told you so.” He won’t say that, after the Buffalo loss, fans and media were wrong to doubt him.

What Rivera says is: “It’s been three seasons. You would like to believe this is where you need to be. I like to think we’re headed in that direction.”

Despite Carolina’s fast finish, the Panthers gained only 222 yards Sunday and gave up 365.

Good teams win when they aren’t at their best. The Panthers weren’t at their best, at least offensively, Sunday.

“That’s what’s exciting about this,” Rivera says. “Sometimes you feel like maybe it’s finally coming. Maybe you play well on defense and don’t play well on offense. Maybe you play well on offense and not on defense. When you still win, you’re right – we are a good team.”

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