CHARLOTTE – Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn vividly recalls four years ago, late in his first season with the Vikings, feeling like he had just helped stick a fork in his former team.
“After we beat them,” Munnerlyn said, remembering Minnesota’s 31-13 victory that sent the 2014 Panthers to a sixth consecutive loss, “I was talking junk to TD and Charles Johnson.”
Safety Colin Jones vividly recalls Week 14 of that season, one week later, when a Panthers team that no one gave a fighting chance got in a fight at the Superdome against the Saints and kept landing unlikely punches from there.
“I just remember a little melee down there in the end zone,” 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 once stood 3-8-1 beat the Falcons in Atlanta to improve to 7-8-1 and claim the NFC South title and a home playoff game.
“We’ve been here before,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “There are shadows of 2014.”
This Monday night, a Panthers team that has dropped five consecutive games to fall to 6-7 will host a Saints team that has already clinched the NFC South and a home playoff game. But this time it’s the NFC as a whole that’s presenting the opportunity, with the Panthers needing a little help like they did that year but mostly needing to help themselves if they hope to return to the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
On paper, it doesn’t seem possible that a team struggling like this one can beat the 11-2 Saints not once but twice in addition to handling a similarly struggling Falcons team in between. Then again, what happened in 2014 didn’t seem possible, either.
“It goes to show you that all you need is a chance,” Munnerlyn said. “They had a chance, and they got in. That’s all you can ask for.”
When a football lands on the turf, you can’t tell which direction it will head next. Football fortunes are much the same, so while there was no logical reason to believe the 2014 team would turn things around, it happened – and without warning.
The 2014 team certainly had talent; a similar roster in 2013 had ticked off eight consecutive victories following a 1-3 start to win the NFC South.
“But we were having trouble finding our identity,” running back Fozzy Whittaker said. “We just couldn’t find a way to win; we were finding ways to lose.”
The 2014 Saints weren’t world beaters, but they had improved to 5-7 and taken over the division lead with an impressive victory at the Steelers the previous week. But the Panthers scored a touchdown on the game’s opening drive, forced turnovers on two of New Orleans’ first three offensive snaps and turned it into a 17-0 lead less than nine minutes into the game on Cam Newton’s 2-yard touchdown run.
“It was pretty much downhill from there,” said Panthers running back Travaris Cadet, who played for the Saints in that game. “They outschemed us, and they wanted it more. They played with more grit.”
The only fight the Saints showed on that day was a literal one. A couple of defensive players weren’t happy with how Newton celebrated his rushing touchdown, and that set off a skirmish in and beyond the end zone.
Once order was restored, the Panthers continued to visit the end zone. Whittaker scored Carolina’s fifth and final touchdown late in third quarter of a 41-10 victory.
It was a feel-good day for a team that had been weighed down by a losing feeling for way too long.
“We’re right in that same position this year – with a better football team,” Jones said. “When you have a chance to turn the tide, you make it happen because if we take care of business this week, you’re having a whole different conversation next week.”
Jones is among 12 players, health permitting, set to suit up against the Saints on Monday that played in that game and the three victories that followed. Six of them are slated to start Monday: Newton and offensive linemen Ryan Kalil and Trai Turner on offense, and defensive tackle Kawann Short and linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis on defense.
“Are there similarities? Yeah,” longtime long snapper J.J. Jansen said. “But most of this team wasn’t here for that. Most of the guys playing this week won’t be summoning those emotions.
“But there is an encouragement of having done it before.”
And if they’ve done it before, they can do it again.
“I think the biggest thing you take away is that you’re never out of it until you’re truly out of it,” Kuechly said. “We still have life, and that’s what makes these opportunities fun. Regardless of what your record is, if you have the ability to fight for a wild card position, you’re in a good spot.
“Even though things the last few weeks haven’t gone our way, we put ourselves in a good enough position early on in the season to give ourselves a chance here at the end of the year to play for something that matters.”