Captain Munnerlyn felt like he had just helped stick a fork in his former team.
“After we beat them,” Munnerlyn said, remembering the Vikings’ 31-13 victory that sent the 2014 Panthers to a sixth consecutive loss, “after we beat them, I was talking junk to TD and Charles Johnson.”
But the Panthers, against all odds, weren’t done.
One week later, a team that no one gave a fighting chance got in a fight at the Superdome against the Saints. And the Panthers kept landing punches from there.
“I just remember a little melee down there in the end zone,” safety Colin Jones said. “And us having a fun plane ride home.”
Three weeks after that, the Panthers’ plane ride home was shorter but sweeter, after a Carolina team that had stood at 3-8-1 beat the Falcons in Atlanta to improve to 7-8-1 and claim the NFC South title and the home playoff game that came with it.
“I think the biggest thing you take away is that you’re never out of it until you’re truly out of it,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “We still had life, and that’s what makes these opportunities fun.”
The unlikely turnaround started in New Orleans. The previous season, in 2013, the Panthers and Saints stood among the NFC’s best teams all season, both landing in the playoffs. But in 2014, the rivals entered their Week 14 meeting with the Saints clinging to the division lead with a modest mark of 5-7.
“I just remember thinking we were a game-and-a-half out of first…and we were also a game-and-a-half out of having the first pick,” long snapper J.J. Jansen said. “You really weren’t worrying about trying to win the division, just trying to win a game.”
That’s what the Panthers did – with gusto. In Carolina’s 41-10 victory that came seemingly out of nowhere, the only fight the Saints showed was a literal one. A couple of defensive players weren’t happy with how quarterback Cam Newton celebrated a rushing touchdown, and that set off a skirmish in and eventually behind the end zone.
Once order was restored, the Panthers continued to visit the end zone. It was a feel-good day for a team that had been weighed down by a losing feeling for way too long.
“Sometimes situations like that galvanize everything,” head coach Ron Rivera said.
Rivera’s players credited their coach with keeping hope alive, even after the literally, bitterly cold day in Minnesota the week before. At the open-air stadium at the University of Minnesota, in the coldest conditions for a regular season game in franchise history, the Vikings returned two blocked punts for touchdowns to trounce an already downtrodden team.
“At that point, we were still trying to find our identity,” center Ryan Kalil said.
In the muck of Minnesota, even in an 18-point loss, that identity began to emerge. The Panthers made some changes along the offensive line around Kalil in advance of the Vikings game, and in a losing effort Carolina racked up a season-high 178 rushing yards. On defense, Rivera unleashed a couple of rookies, looking to get them experience for the next season while also adding speed for the final month of the 2014 season.
From then until the end of the year, Jonathan Stewart ran neck-and-neck with Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray for the NFL lead in rushing yards. The defense started making more plays as well, playing a key role in home victories over the Buccaneers and Browns that followed the victory in New Orleans.
The onus was on the defense more than usual with Newton out – miraculously for just one game – after a midweek automobile accident near the stadium that left him thanking his lucky stars. Backup Derek Anderson filled in admirably against Tampa before Newton returned for the Cleveland game, a victory that set the stage for a trip to Atlanta for the season finale with the division crown hanging in the balance.
A rejuvenated Panthers squad flew by the Falcons 34-3 to cap an epic rally that saved what looked like a lost season.
"They deserve this," Rivera said. "We didn't quit. We played hard all the way through and that's why I'm really proud.
"The resilience of this football team with the men in that locker room was on display.”