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Panthers celebrate knowing job not done

CHARLOTTE – Fifteen wins. One loss.

It's a remarkable accomplishment, one worth celebrating thoroughly.

When the Panthers closed out Sunday's 38-10 win over the Buccaneers, there were countless bear hugs. There was a celebratory group photo taken on the sideline, complete with a group dab, a move made ridiculously popular by quarterback Cam Newton and his teammates.

Head coach Ron Rivera smiled wide and took some well-deserved time to soak it in.

Does any NFL coach envision 15 victories before the start of a season? Highly unlikely. They all know how tough it is to earn just one win, the eternal optimist Rivera included.

"15-1? Hey, I'm an optimist," head coach Ron Rivera said, "but 15-1 is a lot."

The Panthers put together one of the most impressive regular seasons in NFL history. Only five teams have ever gone 15-1. The 2007 Patriots are the only team to go 16-0.

Had it not been for a 20-13 loss to the Falcons in Week 16, Carolina would be right there with them. Newton was one to say that loss and the sick feeling that followed will stick in his memory bank. But as the postgame smiles indicated, there is a lot to be proud of.

"I don't think it's reasonable to just expect every week you win and never have to deal with adversity or worry about how guys respond the following week. That's not the NFL reality," tight end Greg Olsen said. "I know that's been our reality for a little while this year, but you have to see how guys respond. I think we responded in a pretty positive way.

"We're feeling pretty good about winning 15 games in this league. If we see this thing through to the end, I think we'll feel pretty good about ourselves."

Seeing this thing through to the end is the challenge that lies ahead.

A 15-1 win regular season earned Carolina the top seed in the NFC for the first time in franchise history. The Panthers have a first-round bye and homefield advantage.

But that's all it gets you. When the "second season" begins, the Panthers will have to win three more games to prove they are in fact championship worthy. The postseason journey will ultimately tell the story of this team.

Of the five teams to produce 15-1 regular season records, two of them won it all. The 16-0 Patriots wound up losing in the Super Bowl.

"It's been special," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "But we understand that the work is not done yet. We have to continue to focus and understand that we're the hunted right now."

That's a familiar feeling for the Panthers, who were a marked squad throughout their 14-game unbeaten run.

"We're OK wearing (the target)," Davis said. "We've been wearing it all season long, and we only slipped up once. Guys have to understand that moving forward we can't have any more slipups."

The Panthers, an extremely talented group full of swagger and personality, will face the pressure head-on, bringing confidence developed over 17 weeks into postseason play.

"We just want to keep this thing rolling," safety Roman Harper said, "and stay on this train for as long as we can."

They hope the last stop brings them to Santa Clara.

View game action photos from Carolina's 38-10 win over Tampa Bay.

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