CHARLOTTE – In a season of unforgettable firsts, the Carolina Panthers have a chance Sunday to secure yet another one – in a building where they've celebrated playoff-related accomplishments for two years running.
If the Panthers take care of the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, Carolina will wrap up the No. 1 seed for the NFC playoffs and homefield advantage throughout for the first time in franchise history.
That goal is a driving force, but that's far from the only thing motivating this team.
"It's a big deal. That's a big priority for us going into this game," center Ryan Kalil said. "At the end of the day, we want to win. That's our goal each and every week. You do whatever you have to do to make that happen, putting your best players and best game plan on the field.
"This happens to be a bigger week because we have that opportunity to help ourselves for the playoffs, but the task doesn't change for us."
Two years ago, the Panthers headed to Atlanta for the regular season finale knowing they'd be in the playoffs but needing to win to wrap up the NFC South title and a playoff bye. Last year in the season finale, the Panthers faced a do-or-die situation, with the winner headed to the playoffs and the loser home for the postseason.
In both games they prevailed, setting off epic celebrations in the visitors' locker room.
There won't be any championship caps handed out with a victory this Sunday, but it would be another important feather in this team's collective cap. And while this team has more leeway to lose in Atlanta than the Panthers' previous two teams – they'll earn the No. 1 seed with one win over the next two weeks or one loss by the Arizona Cardinals – that's not the way Carolina is looking at it.
"We're playing for pride. We're playing to be a team that nobody wants to face," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "Everybody wants to compete, have a good time and play real good football. That's what we plan on doing.
"Nobody gave us a shot to come out and be 1-0, much less 14-0. The only guys that we know that we can trust are the guys in this locker room every day. As long as we play for each other and our coaches, we don't really care what happens outside the locker room."
The Panthers need to maintain that edge for this matchup given that just two weeks ago, they dominated Atlanta 38-0 at Bank of America Stadium. But the Falcons are still fighting for their playoff lives, and they're getting to play at home for the first time in nearly a month.
"It's a whole other game," defensive tackle Star Lotulelei said. "Each and every week, the team that plays the best wins – it's not always the best team that wins."
So far, be it as the best team or as the team that played the best, the Panthers have managed to win every week. Even as they close in on history, they understand the important of maintaining that one-game-at-a-time mentality that has served them so well so far.
"We won't look too far ahead," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "We're just worried about this game against the Falcons. We're locked in."
View the top photos by photographer Kent Smith from Carolina's game against Atlanta.