Scott Fowler

Panthers finish 15-1, but very important games remain

Panthers players pose for an impromptu photo late in the fourth quarter Sunday in Carolina’s 38-10 win over Tampa Bay in Charlotte.
Panthers players pose for an impromptu photo late in the fourth quarter Sunday in Carolina’s 38-10 win over Tampa Bay in Charlotte. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Fifteen and one.

And not close to done.

That’s where the Carolina Panthers are today as they bask in the glow of the best regular season in the franchise’s 21-year history. Carolina found its mojo and throttled Tampa Bay, 38-10, Sunday to ensure a 15-1 record and homefield advantage for the Panthers throughout the NFC playoffs.

The only possible road trip left for this Carolina team? A Feb. 7th date at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, Calif.

As wonderful as all that is for Panthers fans, their team still must win three more games to fulfill the ultimate goal. This is a team very capable of winning Carolina’s first Super Bowl title, but only the Panthers plays like they did Sunday and not as the team did two weeks ago in Atlanta, the team’s lone loss.

No one would have predicted Carolina would win 15 of its 16 regular-season games – not even its hopeful head coach, who generally thinks that not only is the glass half full but that it also must be filled with the most perfect batch of iced tea ever created.

“I’m an optimist,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “But 15-1 is a lot.”

And 18-1 would be even more amazing.

The team has earned a playoff bye next weekend. Then they play a divisional playoff game Jan. 16 or 17 against the lowest-seeded remaining team in the NFC. If the Panthers win that, they will host the NFC championship Jan. 24. And if they win that, the Panthers are bound for the Super Bowl.

Homefield advantage is key for Carolina, which hasn’t lost in Bank of America Stadium since 2014. This was the Panthers’ 11th straight win at home, the longest active streak in the NFL.

“Let’s keep that up,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said afterward. “Let’s take it even to another level. ... A lot of credit goes to our fans. We’ve felt them all season out in public and in the stadium. The vibe in this city right now is pretty incredible. It’s the best I’ve ever felt it.”

Sunday’s victory was ensured when the Panthers scored 24 unanswered points in the second quarter, finding their form a week after losing 20-13 at Atlanta to spoil their chances of becoming the first 19-0 team in NFL history.

In the process, Cam Newton tightened his grip on the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award – voting concludes Tuesday, although the award winner won’t be announced for another month.

Newton’s closest competitors – fellow quarterbacks Carson Palmer of Arizona and Tom Brady of New England – played unremarkably Sunday and lost. And an Observer survey of half of the award’s 50 voters showed Newton with a massive lead entering the final weekend.

On Sunday, Newton had two rushing touchdowns (both from one yard out) and two passing TDs (31 yards to Jerricho Cotchery and 16 to Devin Funchess) before leaving the game with a 38-10 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Newton was serenaded with “MVP, MVP!” chants after every big play, as he orchestrated drives, touchdown football giveaways and photo opportunities with equal aplomb. Newton became the only player in NFL history to have at least 30 passing TDs and 10 rushing TDs in a single season.

Newton was extremely sharp throwing the ball all afternoon, completing 21 of 26 passes for 293 yards. Of his five incompletions, two were dropped by Corey Brown and one of those was another potential touchdown pass. Newton spread the ball around to eight different targets, cleverly making up for the fact he was missing his leading receiver (Ted Ginn Jr.) and rusher (Jonathan Stewart).

And about that 15-1 record: The Panthers ended up with a regular-season record at least two games clear of everyone else in the NFL. Carolina had never won more than 12 games in a regular season before and never more than 14 overall (in the Super Bowl year of 2003).

Whatever happens in these playoffs, this was the Panthers’ best regular season ever – and indeed, they may never have a better one.

But there’s no way around it: A glorious regular season will still be clouded with disappointment if Carolina doesn’t win it all.

This season was sensational – 15-1 was a lot of fun.

But if the Panthers are really going to have one of the most extraordinary seasons in NFL history, there are three more games that need to be won.

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