CHARLOTTE – When San Francisco kicker Phil Dawson converted a 33-yard field as time expired to defeat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday, the Panthers divisional round opponent was determined.
And for fullback Mike Tolbert, this is what immediately came to mind: "Grudge match. Another slugfest."
In Week 10, the Panthers earned a brutally hard-fought 10-9 victory over the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Two of the NFL's best defenses went toe to toe, and a 53-yard field goal by Graham Gano in the fourth quarter gave Carolina a one-point win.
"It's a new game," linebacker Chase Blackburn said. "Just because we beat them once doesn't give you the right to say we are going to beat them again. We have to execute."
Said Tolbert: "I expect it to be a fight to the end again."
Now the Panthers will host the 49ers at Bank of America Stadium with a trip to the NFC Championship on the line.
"We've earned this opportunity," head coach Ron Rivera said.
There are those who are quick to question whether the Panthers are ready for this opportunity. Will Carolina's lack of playoff experience prove to be detrimental against the defending NFC champions?
Rivera doesn't believe so.
"We've played a lot of big games this year," Rivera said, noting the win at San Francisco and on Monday Night Football against the New England Patriots among others. "We've won a lot of games in the fourth quarter as well.
"People want to make more out of (the playoff experience factor) than it is."
Perhaps that lack of postseason experience is a reason why the NFC South champion Panthers have been labeled underdogs on their home field.
"Well, they picked us to finish last in the division," cornerback Drayton Florence said. "We really don't listen to what people predict about us."
"It's kind of funny. It'll be interesting," Rivera said of being an underdog. "Being the underdog, I guess, takes the pressure off (us) and puts the pressure on them. Now the expectation is for them. We are at home and we are going to show up and do the best we can. It's a big week. We know it is. It'll be a lot of fun."
And after a successful regular season, the Panthers know the real fun begins when they take the field on Sunday.
"Heck yeah," Blackburn said. "We've had a good season so far, but that doesn't mean anything. It just gave us an opportunity to be where we want to be. Now we have to take advantage of it."