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Next season: Panthers in Super Bowl?

On the five-hour, cross-country flight from Seattle, head coach Ron Rivera had time to process what had been a crazy ride for the 2014 Carolina Panthers.

Rivera thought about the injuries to and car wreck involving quarterback Cam Newton, the fire at Rivera’s home and the down-and-up, ebb and flow of the season, which ended with a 31-17 loss to the Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

The Panthers (8-9-1) didn’t advance any farther in the playoffs than the 12-win team from 2013, although they won a playoff game after becoming only the second team since the NFL realigned in 2002 to win its division with a losing record.

By the time the plane landed in Charlotte, Rivera had turned the page.

Rivera entitled his season-ending, PowerPoint presentation that he delivered to the team last week, “Going Forward.”

“I got off the airplane excited about it,” Rivera said, referring to the 2015 outlook. “When I had the opportunity to talk to the team, it really was about going forward more than anything else.”

Rivera is looking for a big leap.

“I think if we can take a big step we can put ourselves in position to win the Super Bowl. We’re close. I think we can get even closer,” he said.

The Panthers will go forward without several starters.

Embattled defensive end Greg Hardy is not expected to return, regardless of the outcome of his jury trial on domestic violence charges, which is expected to begin Feb. 9. The Panthers also will look to upgrade the left tackle position, where Byron Bell enters free agency coming off a season in which he was ranked the second-lowest tackle in the league by the analytics site Pro Football Focus.

Rivera and general manager Dave Gettleman emphasized the need to get faster. As well as several of the rookies played during the four-game winning streak in December, the loss to Seattle revealed speed deficiencies at receiver, in the secondary and at defensive end, where the Panthers need a pass-rusher to replace Hardy.

But continuity gives Rivera a reason for optimism. Unlike last year’s offseason purge of the receiving corps and secondary, Rivera says there won’t be as much turnover this year. That means, he says, each move will be important.

“We’ve got to be right on. We’ve got to make good decisions. We’ve got to bring in the right kind of guys, coach them up and put them in position to have success.”

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