CHARLOTTE – After their Week 12 bye week, the Panthers ranked 25th in the league in total defense. Five weeks and four wins later, the NFC South champion Panthers enter the postseason with the league's 10th ranked defense.
"A lot of hard work," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "Certainly, a lot to be proud of.
"We saw glimmers of hope when we were ranked whatever. We stayed true to our vision. The players continued to buy in, and we made some personnel moves that worked out in our favor. We've developed some younger players and we've continued to improve every week. That's the goal."
McDermott often talks about creating a culture of dominant defense in Carolina, and the results have reflected his vision. This is the third consecutive year the Panthers have finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 in total defense after ranking 10th in 2012 and second in 2013.
The formula for success starts with disruption up front, and the Panthers defensive line has been extremely disruptive lately.
In the 34-3 victory against the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina registered a season-high six sacks and 12 quarterback hits. The constant pressure also helped create the Panthers' two interception returns for touchdowns.
"When I talk to those guys on the defensive line I always say we are going to go as you go. That's true every week," McDermott said. "They did a phenomenal job of establishing their presence early in the game.
"The guys are playing sound, fundamental football – with great effort at the same time."
Quarterback Cam Newton is playing at a high level, and it goes beyond the statistics.
"He's making sound decisions and he's making them quick," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "He's getting us in the right play and even with some of the reads that we have with quarterback runs. He has a good presence out there. He's in charge and he's getting guys lined up."
Newton's search for his first postseason win and the proverbial "next step" will be a major storyline this week, but that "next step" is one everyone is looking to take.
"It's really the next step for all of us," Shula said. "It's the time of year now where you've got to play four solid quarters of football. The good news for us, though, is we've had to do that the last four weeks in order to have a chance to stand here and talk about the playoffs."
Shula believes the must-win nature of the last four weeks have prepared Carolina well for the pressure of the postseason. And he wants the offense to carry its late-season approach into the playoffs.
"Just keep doing what we've been doing," Shula said. "We're not going to sit there in our team meeting tomorrow and say, 'We've got to take the next step.' That's like saying, 'Hey, don't fumble.' We just want to keep building on the good that we've done."