SAN JOSE, Calif. – For the Carolina Panthers organization, it's been a journey that has taken 12 years. For head coach Ron Rivera, it's been a journey of five years.
But for this team, for this specific collection of coaches and players, the journey has been all about this season, a special season that requires one more successful leg to truly be labeled super.
"I know how extremely hard it is to get in this position," said wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who was drafted into the NFL two months after the Panthers previously reached the Super Bowl in 2004. Cotchery, poised to play in his first Super Bowl, joined the Panthers in 2014.
"This league is generally so impatient with allowing things to play out. It stunts growth of players. It stunts growth of even talented coaches," Cotchery continued. "The organizations that demonstrate that patience are often rewarded for it. This is no different. In our case, we have an extremely talented head coach - a guy who gets players and is a brilliant football mind. I think the organization is being rewarded for that patience with him."
For Rivera, Super Bowl 50 will be his third appearance in the ultimate game but his first as a head coach. He earned a ring as a linebacker for the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears, then he fell short as the Bears' defensive coordinator nine years ago.
His quest to reach a Super Bowl as a head coach began five years ago, when he took over a Carolina franchise seven seasons removed from its lone Super Bowl and coming off a 2-14 season.
"As far as taking satisfaction in being where I am today, I think it is nice. It is a personal goal obviously but at the end of the day it's really about the football team and what we've accomplished as a team since I've been here," Rivera said. "My five seasons have had everything. We've been down. We've been up. We've been down. We've been up again.
"The first year was about finding our franchise quarterback in Cam Newton, and that's what we did. We were very fortunate that we had the first pick. The next year we had to kind of bite our nails a little bit and hope Luke (Kuechly) was there (at the ninth pick). Our first two years were really about establishing our core. Once we had our core, our third year we saw everything come together."
The Panthers went 12-4 in Rivera's third year but weren't quite ready for the biggest of stages, earning a playoff bye only to lose to the 49ers. Last season brought several setbacks, but a team that was once 3-8-1 rallied to win its last four games, capture the NFC South again and win a playoff game.
To say that momentum carried over from last season would be an understatement, with this year's team making history and flirting with even more history. A 14-0 start added up to an NFC-record 18-game winning streak, and the Panthers now have a chance to be just the third team in NFL history to go 18-1 including a Super Bowl title.
It hasn't been easy getting here, and it won't be easy against a Denver Broncos team that boasts the NFL's top defense and has Peyton Manning under center, but the Panthers have made it look easy.
"We're just playing great football," said Newton, who led the Panthers to an NFC Championship-record 49 points to get Carolina here. "A lot of teams have great offenses. A lot of teams have great defenses. This team may have a great punter or field goal kicker, but for us, we're just playing unbelievably great team football."
Momentum can be fleeting, of course, and the Broncos will do everything they can to break that up. Alternatively, the magnitude of the moment has wrecked many a teams' momentum in Super Bowls past.
"You're playing on the biggest stage for the biggest game," said tight end Ed Dickson, who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens three years ago. "You know in your mind that the margin for error is very limited. Everything is magnified. Those catches become bigger. The running yards become bigger. The tackles become bigger."
But, as Dickson later added, preparation for the game is no different, and with proper preparation comes confidence.
Sure, the Broncos might beat the Panthers, but the moment – no matter how long the journey to it – will not get the best of this team.
"I don't think we're putting much pressure on ourselves," safety Kurt Coleman said. "This is a football game. Obviously, the lights and the glamour get bigger, but to us, it's about executing the Xs and Os, really just playing fundamental football and having fun while we're doing it.
"That has been our approach all season, and the one time that I didn't feel like we were ourselves, per se, was the one game that we lost. So, I think all we have to do is be ourselves and enjoy this game."