The Carolina Panthers roared through the regular season with just one defeat inspired by the outstanding Cam Newton, but where did their Super Bowl 50 challenge begin?
Before the showpiece event against the Denver Broncos, we looked back over a thrilling season for the Panthers to assess their Super Bowl credentials.
What were the defining moments? Here they are…
The biggest statement
Through four weeks the Panthers were undefeated, but with wins at the Jaguars and over last year’s cellar-dwellers, the Buccaneers, book-ending routine home wins over the Texans and the Saints it seemed their record was a reflection of a simple schedule rather than a show of strength.
Coming off a Week 5 bye, that notion was to be emphatically disproved as Super Cam led the side to a comeback win over the Seattle Seahawks with two touchdowns on their final two possessions having trailed 23-14.
The Seahawks were admittedly sluggish in slipping to 2-4 at the start of the season but were coming off the back of two straight Super Bowl appearances, winning the first. But Cam was clutch, completing 12 of 15 passes for 169 yards in the fourth quarter, and throwing for 269 yards overall. Any doubters were thoroughly disproved.
The toughest game
The Panthers were tested more than once, their above battle with the Seahawks included. They fought to further one-score wins against the Colts, the Saints and the Giants but in a one-loss season, we can’t look beyond their surprise Week 16 defeat to the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers were on course to become only the second undefeated team in the regular season, following in the footsteps of the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 2007 New England Patriots, and given their post-season progress they could have matched the Dolphins’ perfect campaign.
But only two weeks after shutting out their divisional rivals the Falcons in a 38-0 blowout, Matt Ryan and his team gained revenge with a 20-13 triumph in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons quarterback threw for 306 yards and one touchdown in the contest, connecting with wide receiver Julio Jones – who gained a staggering 178 yards in the game – for that score.
The Panthers were pitted against the Seahawks again in the NFC Divisional round but the difference was that Seattle – and more specifically, quarterback Russell Wilson – were in red-hot form coming into this contest.
It made not a jot of difference to the Panthers though, who shot out to a sensational 31-0 lead at the half with the-returning-from-injury running back, Jonathan Stewart, scoring two touchdowns, Cam throwing for one and All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepting Wilson and running it back to the house.
Sure, the Seahawks showed their pedigree in the second half, putting up 24 unanswered points to climb back to within seven points, but they had run out of time in the pursuit of an unprecedented comeback. The Panthers proved their first-half efforts were no fluke by dismantling the Cardinals 49-15 in the NFC Championship game a week later – Cam throwing two TDS, running for two, and the defence forcing six turnovers.
Super Bowl history
The Panthers have been to the party once before but lost Super Bowl XXXVIII to the Patriots, hardly an embarrassment considering it was the Pats’ second of three title in four years. On reflection it’s amazing it was even that close, with the Jake Delhomme-led Panthers – yes, Jake Delhomme – up against the mastery of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
Delhomme threw for three touchdowns, and even took his side into a 22-21 lead with just over six minutes left in the fourth quarter, but ultimately an Adam Vinatieri 41-yard field goal with seconds remaining would stuff the Panthers and break hearts in Carolina.
It is Carolina’s only trip to the Super Bowl but the franchise is one of the NFL’s youngest, launched only in 1995, and considering the struggles of other start-up sides in their early years the Panthers have been one of the biggest success stories. They came close to a Super Bowl berth in only their second year, losing out to the eventual champs the Green Bay Packers, in the NFC Championship game in the 1996 season.