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Everyone had a hand in unlikely win to cap unlikely season

Steve Wilks locker room

NEW ORLEANS — When you stop and think about it, it made perfect sense for the Panthers' season to end this way.

A season with a new plot twist every week, a new challenge, a new adversity to overcome deserved this kind of ending.

It was never going to be easy. So why should it be in the last game of the year?

"That's just exactly what this team is made up of," said veteran guard Austin Corbett, who was brought in to add a Super Bowl champion's gravity to a young team. "Just a bunch of guys that are going to finish, and going to fight, and going to battle. No matter what's thrown at us. That's the story of this entire season, what this game is.

"Things go well, things get real ugly, and from there, it's just finding a way."

So of course, the Panthers ended the season with a touchdown by an offensive lineman who barely played, a last-second field goal by a last-second replacement kicker who barely missed, and a team bound together by an interim head coach who barely had a chance to make this thing work — except he got them to within a sniff of the playoffs.

For the Panthers to beat the Saints 10-7 Sunday to finish 7-10 on the year took a lot of people, filling a lot of roles no one expected when this season started.

Corbett was standing in a knee brace as he said it, heading for an MRI when he gets home, clearly in pain but smiling because why wouldn't you smile? And that was one of the layers of this game that kept peeling back, like an onion, and enough to make some of them cry.

Even if you rewind all the way to Week 6, when Matt Rhule was fired, and Steve Wilks took over. A week later, the Panthers traded Christian McCaffrey and embarked on a spin cycle that would take them through three quarterbacks. Their offensive line was a constant, playing every snap of every game through the first 16.

But by halftime Sunday, Corbett and Brady Christensen were both out with injuries, with Christensen leaving the locker room on crutches after hurting his left ankle.

So naturally, it was backup guard Michael Jordan who recovered a fumble in the end zone for the Panthers' only touchdown. A guy who started 10 games last year but played one snap this season was ready to make the play they needed when they needed it.

It takes a certain presence and presence of mind for a little-used backup to make that kind of play. Maybe it's just instinct, but it's also something this team cultivated, an ability to step up for each other when things got weird.

"I just saw the ball on the ground, so I jumped on the ball," Jordan said of his first life-time touchdown, much less NFL touchdown. "You just have to show up the same way every day, and respect your teammates that way. I do whatever I can for my team, and so I'm glad I could make the play.

"It's a surreal moment. For my teammates and I, this was a great team win today. Everyone came together. Defense, all three phases. (Punter) Johnny Hekker flipping the field, the offense, we always talk about finishing, and we finished the job. Everyone buys into the culture that coach Wilks has provided and showed us."

It took all of them, especially the ones no one expected to be heroes.

To even be in a position to change things, it took the Saints missing a 55-yard field goal with 1:20 left to play. Cornerback CJ Henderson — who took a lot of the blame for last week's loss at Tampa, which cost the Panthers a chance at the playoffs after a 1-5 start — got a hand on that kick, the latest in a long line of guys who weren't supposed to be celebrating at this moment.

Oh yeah, that includes quarterback Sam Darnold.

He hadn't done much through the air all day — at least not much positive. He threw two interceptions and had a grand total of 22 yards passing heading into that final drive.

But if you were going to make one play all day, what a time to make it.

His 21-yard pass to Terrace Marshall Jr. was perfectly timed and put the Panthers in position for Eddy Piñeiro's game-winning field goal. If you were only going to make one play, that was the one to make.

"I knew things would eventually come to us," Marshall said, despite the fact there was little reason to believe that would be the case. "Our identity, we always persevere. We always come through, it was just a matter of time, and it showed up right on time.

"Due to the experience, the things we went through this season, the way we've come up before. As a team, collectively, I just knew we'd pull through."

Wilks was emotional after the game, calling it "profound" to come up with a win when there was ostensibly nothing on the line. He talked about the team's character, the way they fought for each other.

But they were also kind of fighting for him, even though he said for about the 500th time, "it's not about me" when asked about his future and how this win might have impacted it.

Linebacker Frankie Luvu was one of many who said they were grateful to win this game for Wilks. He said the interim coach was "like a father to me" and that he held players accountable was central to how they came up with wins like this — and won five of their final eight games.

"The brotherhood that we have," Luvu said. "The tenacity. Like Wilks said, circling the wagons and finishing the last game with a win."

Frankie Luvu

Luvu shook his head when asked if there was a fear that this one might have gotten away from them early, when it looked like they couldn't stop the Saints at all, a 75-yard opening drive punctuated by a 25-yard touchdown pass against 35-year-old cornerback Josh Norman, who rolled in less than two weeks ago.

The Panthers were short-handed, without star pass-rusher Brian Burns, out with an ankle injury. But on a late third down, a sack by rookie Amaré Barno, Burns' understudy, got them in position to have a chance, as illogical as it was.

"With or without Burns, we know Burns is going to coach to his fullest," Luvu said. "Barno came up with the sack on third down. That's the kind of brotherhood we had, the next man up. That's how we circle the wagons. It was a brotherhood today. Guys stepped up today.

"Knowing in that guys are buying in. Buying in when things are down, buying in when things are up. And Wilks, he kept everybody accountable for that, and we came out with the win."

Long snapper JJ Jansen has seen a lot of things. He extended his franchise record by playing his 226th game Sunday, capping his 14th season with the Panthers.

"This is the most fun I've had in a football season," Jansen said, and that means something. He once went 15-1 and to the Super Bowl. "Specifically to the collection of guys. This is a team and a group of men that have been through a lot this season. What you saw on the field was a group of guys that don't care who gets the credit. Just tries to find a way to win by any means necessary."

Most of them pointed the credit toward Wilks, the guy who had to pull a 1-5 team back together after it just traded its best offensive player away. There was every reason to stop.

They never did.

Wilks talks about "the act of a champion," and the letters stand for accountability, commitment, and trust. He also spends a lot of time talking about their DNA, and when asked to explain it, veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson recited it easily because it's part of all of them now.

"Physical. Effort. Commitment. Smart. And finish. That's our DNA," he replied.

"It tells you about this group of men, that are going to continue to fight non-stop," Thompson continued. "It was a tough one last week, we were all still hurt by it. We just didn't execute, lose by six, so it's tough. And both sides came out flat today.

"Second half, we started finding our DNA. We started locking in. The defense started pitching a damn shutout, the offense started running the ball, finding our DNA."

This is what they were all about.

In every possible sense, to every last one of them.

View photos from the field and locker room after the Panthers beat the Saints at the buzzer in Week 18.

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