CHARLOTTE – For the first time in franchise history, the Carolina Panthers are hosting an NFC Championship game. On Sunday, they'll face the Arizona Cardinals, and the NFC's top two seeds will battle for the right to represent to the conference in Super Bowl 50.
"We are one of the four left, and everyone is looking at you," safety Roman Harper said. "This is what you play the game for. It's an opportunity to go out there and show what we're all about. These are the things that we all wake up and dream about."
The top-seeded Panthers are so close to the biggest stage in football. But there's a huge hurdle still to clear.
The Cardinals, much like the Panthers, played outstanding complimentary football all year long to get to this point. Arizona finished the regular season first in total offense and fifth in total defense.
Offensively, they'll take more shots downfield than anyone. Defensively, they'll blitz more than anyone.
"Pressure and aggressiveness is evident through their entire team," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Specifically on defense, they are not afraid to put guys on islands and bring people. They are going to bring people from both sides of the field in all situations. That's their style, they do it well. It's a very big challenge, there's no doubt about it."
Said linebacker Luke Kuechly, leader of Carolina's sixth-ranked defense: "They have weapons everywhere. They've got a guy back there that's throwing the ball, Carson Palmer, that's been around for a while and he's seen everything. He's played at a high level, not only this year, but in the previous years. You look at who he is throwing the ball to – they kind of have everything you want."
The stakes are as high as they've ever been for a game at Bank of America Stadium, but you wouldn't know it by Carolina's demeanor.
It's been the same approach all week for a Panthers team overflowing with fun-loving personality. They're still out to prove everyone who doubted them wrong. And they're going to stay true to who they are with their ultimate goal within reach.
"All year long no one has given us a shot," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "We're not supposed to be here – that's what everybody else thinks. So we're going to be who we are and have fun with what we do on and off the field. This is just another episode of it."