CHARLOTTE – This time a year ago, as the Panthers prepared for their final home game of the regular season, they were a team on a roll and on a mission. Winners of three of their last four games entering Week 16, the Panthers produced a defensively dominant performance in a 17-6 victory over the Oakland Raiders.
That may sound a lot like the situation this season, with one notable difference. The 2012 team was 5-9 entering Week 16, on its way to a 7-9 finish. The 2013 team is 10-4 entering Week 16, possibly on its way to a playoff appearance.
Officially, last year's final games were meaningless. In reality, they were not. In reality, they're part of the reason this year's remaining games are meaningful in every sense of the word.
"Last year, Coach was talking about developing good genes as a team to be successful in the months of November and December," quarterback Cam Newton said, "to put yourself in a situation to be a contender come January and February."
Following a 2-8 start to the rookie year of 2011 for Newton and head coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers won four of their final six games. Following a 2-8 start in 2012, they won five of their final six games.
Carolina is again in position for a 5-1 finish – but this time it's following a 7-3 start.
"We could have so easily said, 'Well, it's the end of the year. No need to play. Pack the car, get the car warmed up,' " Rivera said. "But that's not how the players approached it.
"There really were a lot of things for us to gain."
CONFIDENCE: The Panthers were competitive throughout Rivera's first two seasons but too often seemed to wind up on the short end of the stick.
Late in the season, they learned a lot about what it takes to win – by winning.
"We closed out great last year, beating some big-time teams like Atlanta that went on to the NFC Championship game," said right tackle Byron Bell, also a rookie in 2011. "We weren't going to the playoffs but, we still went out and competed and showed what we were capable of.
"I think that's a big part of the reason we're 10-4 now."
During last season's strong finish, Carolina handled the Falcons with impressive ease at home and made San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers look like a shell of his former self on the road. The other three victories weren't truly nail-biters, but all did require the Panthers to make pivotal plays late to close them out.
So far, this year's team has won games that fit in all of the above categories, in addition to a couple of last-minute triumphs.
CONTINUNITY: The Panthers were playing for pride late last season, and they were playing to get better in hopes of becoming better in 2013.
They also were playing for their coaches, specifically in hopes that their coaches would return in 2013.
Rivera's job status was uncertain late last year and even after the season. He didn't learn that he'd return until nearly a week after the season finale, an emotional 44-38 victory at New Orleans.
There were some changes to his staff, most notably the departure of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to Cleveland. Rivera, however, replaced him with quarterbacks coach Mike Shula, and the Panthers picked up where they left off in a way that would have been difficult had they cleaned house.
"We have a few new things here and there, but for the most part everything has been the same for my three years," Bell said. "When I came in for OTAs, I was rolling. The only thing I've got to do is continue to get better. It's second nature now."
COHESIVENESS: The team-wide effort to save the coaching staff and the winning that came along with it brought an already close team closer still. And it pushed them closer to the kind of success they're enjoying now.
It was a total team effort and continues to be.
"After practice, we'd have 20, 25 guys working out, doing the extra things," Rivera said. "We had the young guys working with Ray Brown. We had the wide receivers catching extra balls from the Jugs machine with Ricky Proehl. The quarterbacks were out there throwing extra balls. The defensive backs worked on footwork.
"I believed that they understood what it takes, and that was all a part of the growth that this football team had to go through. They learned how to be pros."