Scott Fowler

Are Panthers on the verge of a miracle?

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton reaches out and connects with fans on postgame victory laps and after touchdowns.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton reaches out and connects with fans on postgame victory laps and after touchdowns. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

On Nov. 7, the night before Carolina played Green Bay in Charlotte, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera saw an opportunity.

Everyone knew Rivera had a very good Panthers team – a 7-0 start had shown that. But Green Bay had the history, and Green Bay had last year’s NFL Most Valuable Player, and Green Bay was favored to win.

Rivera, though, understood something else about the development of quarterback Cam Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly and a handful of other homegrown stars. He already knew the Panthers had a chance this season to reach heights they never had before.

He just needed to make sure his team knew that. So the Panthers coach reached for a miracle.

Specifically, he reached for “Miracle” – the 2004 movie based on the true story of the 1980 gold-medal U.S. hockey team and its remarkable Olympic upset of the seemingly invincible Russians.

Rivera loves the movie, especially Kurt Russell’s portrayal of U.S. head coach Herb Brooks. In one of the most famous scenes, the hockey coach gives a stirring pep talk just before the U.S.-Russia game in which he tells the American players: “This is your time! Their time is done. It’s over!”

Just before the Green Bay game, Rivera instructed the Panthers’ video crew to intersperse some of the team’s best highlights of the 2015 season with clips of the coach’s speech from “Miracle.”

“Hey, the Russians had had their time,” Rivera told me in a recent interview. “They had been world champions. ... And I kind of related it to we’re the new team, the new kids on the block, going up against the older team that has got the history.”

Did it work? Well, Carolina won that game against Green Bay, and then won again, and now the Panthers are sitting at a startling 9-0 entering Sunday’s 1 p.m. home game against Washington. The Panthers are poised for just the sort of breakout season that the ever-optimistic Rivera had anticipated – but one that few others did.

For Panthers fans, this entire season has been an ode to joy. There is something magical about cheering for a team that is exceeding expectations at every turn, a “playing-with-house-money” sort of feeling.

This team is built around Newton’s flash and Kuechly’s fundamentals. But the quick emergence of several other players has meant the Panthers have gotten very good very fast. Legendary coach Don Shula said recently from Miami he was hoping the Panthers would become the first team to go undefeated in 43 years, since his Dolphins did in 1972, and no one laughed.

An undefeated season remains extremely unlikely. Carolina is less than halfway there and would have to win 10 more games in a row to do it (including the playoffs). But a Panthers victory in the Super Bowl? That no longer seems implausible.

A Super Bowl rematch?

Who could have imagined this? Panthers defensive end Mario Addison proclaimed, “I see a Super Bowl!” in late July, and numerous teammates quietly agreed. But outside the locker room, hardly anyone did.

Yes, Carolina made the playoffs the past two seasons. But in 2014, the team went through two months where it didn’t win a game and ultimately finished 8-9-1. Then the Panthers lost their best receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to a knee injury in training camp before the season began. Modest expectations dropped even further on a national level.

ESPN has what it calls its “Power Panel,” which is a group of more than 80 NFL writers, editors and TV personalities. They rank the NFL teams 1-32 each week.

Before the season began, Carolina ranked No. 19 in this weekly “Power Poll.” Seattle was No. 1, New England No. 2, Green Bay No. 3 and Indianapolis No. 4.

Carolina now has risen to No. 2 in those same ESPN rankings, having beaten everybody in the original top four except New England. A game against the 9-0 Patriots (No. 1 in the poll) could only occur in the Feb. 7 Super Bowl. Such a game would provide a juicy rematch of the Super Bowl from 12 seasons ago. That was Carolina’s lone appearance in football’s biggest game and resulted in a last-second, 32-29 loss to the Patriots.

Could the next Super Bowl provide the same opponent but a different ending? The Panthers players are careful to repeat Rivera’s “one-game-at-a-time” mantra. But like their fans, they dream of bigger things.

Says quarterback Newton, who is having the best year of his career: “I’ll say it flat-out: Are we the most talented team in the league? Absolutely not. But I pride myself in being able to say we could be the best team in this league.”

If you still wonder why the Panthers are 9-0, let me offer three reasons.

Reason No. 1: The fight

Although the Panthers pride themselves on camaraderie, it has not been seamless. The biggest story of the Panthers’ preseason was Benjamin’s injury. The second-biggest? The brief and public fight that Newton and cornerback Josh Norman engaged in on the practice field in August.

Newton and Norman have similar personalities. They are charismatic, joy-filled, talented trash-talkers.

Something had been brewing for awhile in Spartanburg between the two. When Newton threw an interception one day to Norman, and Norman showboated while running it back, Newton got angry. The quarterback tried to tackle Norman, who stiff-armed him. Suddenly, Newton was in Norman’s face, Norman was knocking off Newton’s helmet, and the two had thrown each other to the ground.

It could have been nasty – the beginning of a yearlong schism between the Panthers’ defense and the offense. Rivera knew it was a delicate moment. He had a “We Have To Get Past This” speech loaded up for the next team meeting.

He never used it.

“I’m all set to give this great speech about teamwork and togetherness and family and what we’re trying to build inside the locker room,” Rivera said. “And then Ryan Kalil, Thomas Davis, Greg Olsen, Charles Johnson and Luke Kuechly, basically all the captains (except for Newton, since he was involved in the scuffle), came up and said ‘Coach, we got this. We’ll take care of it. We’re good.’ So I never talked to the team.”

Instead, Rivera decided less was more. He let his captains dissipate any lingering locker room tension as they fanned out and spoke to other players in small groups. The coach talked to Newton and Norman separately and let them apologize to the team on their own.

Within days, Newton and Norman were clowning around with each other. The team’s vision became clearer once the blown-off steam faded away.

The aftermath: Not only is Newton playing the best football of his career, but so is Norman.

Reason No. 2: Seattle

When I asked Rivera which game in the 9-0 start was most significant, his answer was immediate.

“Without a doubt in my mind,” the coach said, “I’d have to say Seattle.”

Carolina had gone 0-4 against Seattle since Newton and Rivera arrived the same year, in 2011. The Seahawks had been Carolina’s personal nemesis. They were also the last team to beat Carolina, more than 10 months ago in the playoffs.

The Oct. 18 game was in Seattle, and it looked like the Seahawks would beat the Panthers again when they took a 23-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.

But Newton led the Panthers on two consecutive 80-yard touchdown drives into the teeth of one of the NFL’s toughest defenses and loudest stadiums. A 26-yard pass from Newton to tight end Greg Olsen, his favorite target, gave Carolina the deciding touchdown in a 27-23 victory.

“The way our defense played, and the way Cam played in that fourth quarter – it has permeated through the rest of the team,” Rivera said. “We have been more confident ever since.”

Reason No. 3: The talent

No matter how well the players get along, no team goes 14-1 over its past 15 games as the Panthers have without a whole lot of talent.

Marty Hurney, the Panthers’ previous general manager before he was fired in October 2012, deserves serious credit for the drafts that produced Newton, Kuechly and Norman and the trade that netted Carolina tight end Greg Olsen.

Current general manager Dave Gettleman got the Panthers out of salary-cap hell – when he arrived in 2013, the Panthers were hamstrung by numerous financial obligations for fading players. Gettleman also let Greg Hardy walk after his domestic-violence issues, drafted leading sacker Kawann Short and standout offensive guard Trai Turner and filled numerous gaps with modestly priced players.

Kalil, a center who is considered one of the best in the NFL and has played for Carolina since 2007, said this is the most talented Panthers team he has been on (including the Carolina playoff teams of 2008, 2013 and 2014).

“And there’s a lot of young talent in this group that a lot of people haven’t heard of,” Kalil said. “That’s why we get a lot of criticism, a lot of ‘They do more with less’ – which I don’t think is fair.”

After studying the roster of the 2003 Carolina Super Bowl team – which had a 14-6 record including the playoffs – I would tell you the Panthers from a pure talent perspective are slightly better in 2015.

The 2003 Super Bowl team had the edge at wide receiver (Muhsin Muhammad, Steve Smith) and on the defensive line (Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers were all Pro Bowl-type players that season). The running backs and special teams were about even.

But these Panthers, in terms of talent, are better at quarterback (Newton over Jake Delhomme), tight end, secondary, linebacker and on their extremely underrated offensive line. Rivera loves to point to the offensive line improvement and the fact the Panthers have rushed for at least 100 yards in 20 straight games.

As many as nine Panthers should or could make the Pro Bowl this year – Newton, Kuechly, linebacker Thomas Davis, fullback Mike Tolbert, Olsen, Kalil, Norman, Short and Turner. The 2003 Panthers had four Pro Bowlers.

The Panthers traded for 33-year-old defensive end Jared Allen in midseason. He is struck by one characteristic on his new team.

“Humility,” Allen said. “There’s a ton of talent on this team, and you can see that. But guys come to work the same way each day. I’ve been on some teams with a ton of talent, and it can be disastrous. Not this one.”

Even with all that talent, few on this team have tasted much playoff success. So the Panthers still believe they are much more like the 1980 U.S. hockey team than the Russians.

And to a man, they think this can be the year of their miracle.

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