CHARLOTTE – Safety Roman Harper won football's ultimate prize as a member of the New Orleans Saints five years ago, but since then his dream of a second Super Bowl has twice ended where many dreams have died in recent years.
Saturday night, when Harper's new team travels to Seattle for an NFC Divisional Playoff against the reigning champion Seahawks, Harper hopes the third time will be the charm.
"It is the hardest place to play in the NFL right now," Harper said. "They're very successful, and the crowd is very smart, knows when to cheer. It's usually rainy, and it's a long way to travel for most teams.
"At the end of the day, you've got to be able to handle all of those things. Once you get between the white lines and kick off the ball, you've got to lock in. We've got to do whatever it takes to get the win and keep our dream alive and keep this journey going."
The journey has been a bumpy one to say the least for the Panthers but has turned into a fun ride over the last month – between the white lines at least. Since Carolina last lost a game, quarterback Cam Newton has been involved in a harrowing car accident and head coach Ron Rivera has dealt with a frightening fire at his home, but all parties escaped unharmed.
On the field, Panthers opponents haven't been as fortunate. Since a six-game losing streak dropped Carolina to 3-8-1, the Panthers have reeled off five consecutive victories, needing every one of the first four to reach the playoffs and then taking advantage with a Wild Card Playoff victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday.
"It ain't the prettiest thing, but we got a date to the prom. We're here," Harper said. "She's probably not the best looking one, not going to win prom queen, but we're having a good time.
"We're enjoying ourselves and the opportunity. We're going to continue to get better every day – which is what we've done the last month-and-a-half – and we'll stay focused and control the controllable."
There are things about playing in Seattle that aren't easily controlled. CenturyLink Field was built with the idea of making life difficult for visiting teams, and so are the Seahawks.
The legend of a team that has gone 24-2 at home over the last three seasons took root in 2010, when Harper and the reigning Super Bowl champion Saints visited a 7-9 Seattle team in the opening round of the playoffs.
In a situation similar to Saturday when the 7-8-1 Panthers handled the 11-5 Cardinals at home, the Seahawks eliminated New Orleans 41-36 in a game featuring a 67-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch that Harper isn't alone in labeling as one of the greatest in NFL history.
"It's something I can store in my memory bank when I'm finished playing this game as far as some of the great things and not-so-great things I've seen with my own eyes," Harper said. "We started off good, but then they got a little bit of momentum, the crowd got into it, and then the next thing you know Marshawn became the beast and Skittles were flying."
By the time Harper returned to the scene of the crime for last year's NFC Divisional Playoff, the Seahawks had become viewed as virtually unbeatable at home. They looked the part that day, sinking the Saints 23-15 in a game that wasn't as close as the score.
The Panthers, however, are ready for another opportunity after losing three games to Seattle – all at home – that were a close as the score. The Seahawks won the games by a combined 13 points, including a 13-9 triumph in Week 8 this season.
"We lost the game. You don't get points for keeping it close. We get paid to win games," Harper said. "But we're a good team, and we're a hot team. We've got to keep doing what's been successful for us."