CHARLOTTE – When it comes to the details of their playoff fate, the Panthers don't yet know the who, what, when and where.
Those four Ws are important, but more important than that? The four big Ws the Panthers have claimed over the past five seasons.
Carolina is playoff bound for the fourth time in five years, a stretch of success that just four other NFL teams can currently claim – the Seahawks and Packers in the NFC, the Patriots and Steelers in the AFC (the Patriots are the lone 5-for-5 team, though the Seahawks can join them with a little help from Carolina on Sunday).
It's an impressive run for a franchise that has long sought an extended run of relevance, a franchise that shocked the football world by reaching the NFC Championship in its second season of competition but that had never reached the playoffs more than twice in any five-year stretch.
In 2013 when the Panthers recovered from a 1-3 start to begin this run, head coach Ron Rivera talked about "being relevant," a mantra that grew during an eight-game winning streak and even found its way into the fashion mix at training camp the next year.
After the 2013 team won the NFC South, Rivera would talk on occasion about "staying relevant." That accomplished, Rivera rarely repeats it anymore. But he's of course proud to play a part in the accomplishment.
"I'm very fortunate to have a great group of coaches who do a good job, and also the support we've gotten from our front office and our owner," Rivera said. "The biggest thing that has happened for us since I've been here is that we have our franchise quarterback - we have that guy in place in Cam Newton.
"For the most part we've been able to protect him, and when we have protected him, he's been successful. We've had some playmakers around him, and us being able to consistently run the ball takes pressure off of him."
Since the start of the 2013 season, the Panthers rank fourth in the NFL with 128.8 yards per game. Newton is a pivotal part of the run game success, both in literal and figurative terms. He ranks first among quarterbacks and 25th regardless of position with 2,814 rushing yards since 2013 (Jonathan Stewart is 13th with 3,482), but also the threat of Newton running helps make the offense tick.
Rivera, a linebacker in his playing days who became a widely respected defensive coordinator, has laid a solid foundation for success on that side of the ball.
"Defensively, we've been good with Sean McDermott and now Steve Wilks and what they've done with those units and the players we have on that unit," he said. "We have our franchise player on defense you could say with Luke Kuechly in the middle."
Kuechly leads the NFL in tackles since the beginning of 2013. He's a defensive coordinator on the field, the player who gets the defense in position pre-snap to make plays and is then in position himself to make them thanks to tons of talent in front of him.
Over the five-season run, the Panthers pace the NFL with 240 sacks – 31 more than the Patriots – and 143 takeaways (two more than the Eagles). Carolina ranks second stopping the run, giving up a mere 11 more rushing yards than the Cardinals over that timeframe.
These days, NFL games are broken down by every metric imaginable. Stats are thrown out at a dizzying rate in an effort to figure out why one team struggles while another team thrives.
But sometimes, the simplest answer is the best one.
Run the ball and protect the ball. Stop the run. Get to the quarterback. Take the ball away. And do so relatively consistently with not just playmakers but with difference makers like Newton and Kuechly.
It's a formula that has worked for the Panthers five years now, the lone exception being 2016 when injuries to the offensive line and to Kuechly proved too much to overcome.
In a world where "What have you done for me lately?" comes too fast yet is still quickly pushed aside for "What's next?" Panthers fans should pause for a second and celebrate the string of success. Future success is never guaranteed in this league, but so far it's been a fun run.
View photos from the week of practice leading up to the Panthers' game against the Falcons.