NEW ORLEANS – The Panthers clinched the NFC South for the third consecutive year moments before kickoff Sunday against Saints.
The Buccaneers had beaten the Falcons, sending both teams to 6-6, meaning the 11-0 Panthers had already secured the best record in the division. Take it for what it's worth, but most players said they had no idea the crown was theirs prior to kickoff.
One player however, linebacker and team captain Thomas Davis, admitted he knew.
"I told Luke (Kuechly), but I didn't really tell anyone else," Davis said. "We had to go out and take care of our business. I didn't want guys thinking, 'Hey, we already won the division, we can relax.' I knew what kind of game it was going to be."
It was a wild game that featured five lead changes. Carolina didn't anticipate so many dramatic ups and downs, but the Panthers knew a win in the Superdome would have to be well-earned.
"We couldn't come out and be lax," cornerback Josh Norman said. "The Saints gave us their best shot."
But the Saints' best shot wasn't quite enough. Carolina, despite losing the turnover battle 3-1 and giving up two points on a returned extra point, prevailed after quarterback Cam Newton engineered a game-winning touchdown drive in the closing minutes.
For the Panthers who didn't know they were division champs prior to kickoff, it was irrelevant. The 41-38 victory over the Saints was their title-clinching moment, and that's the way it should be.
"You can't give a preliminary championship award to someone who hasn't played the full game," Norman said. "We had to understand that and earn it."
Celebration was in order after the victory. Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson got it started by taking a page out of Newton's playbook and "dabbing" in the center of the joyous locker room.
"It was a special moment," Davis said, "to see him come in with a smile on his face after what we had done today."
Last season, the Panthers became the first franchise to win back-to-back NFC South titles. They raised the bar even higher with the three-peat, strengthening their already tight grip on the division.
"It's amazing," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "No one said we could do it once and they definitely said we couldn't do it twice. To be able to come in here and get it a third wrapped up in Game 12, that's great."
Added tight end Greg Olsen: "Three in a row is pretty special. Every team when they meet in the offseason, their first goal is to win the division. That's our first box checked."
There are many more boxes to check, many more aspirations to fulfill. But on Sunday in New Orleans, the Panthers savored a special accomplishment.
"I don't think that many people before the season gave us a chance," Newton said of claiming a third division title in three years. "But we did it. And it feels good, man – proving not only to everybody, but proving to ourselves that we are capable of doing this."
Week 13: Saints vs. Panthers