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Panthers talked "playoff mentality," now they believe it

Shaq Thompson

SEATTLE — The music coming out of the locker room suggested a party.

The emotion welling up in Steve Wilks' eyes as he talked about it, and how his voice cracked as he did so, suggested that it meant more than just the result of one game.

The way veteran Shaq Thompson talked about remembering the last time the Panthers won a game in this place, and the way he described it to his teammates the night before, underscored the importance of what happened at Lumen Field Sunday night.

And the twinkle in one of the young ones' eye when he talked about what it all meant suggested that something might be happening here.

After beating the Seahawks 30-24 to improve to 5-8, an unlikely thing has happened. The Panthers keep talking about "playoff mentality," and now it looks real. And whether it turns out to be or not, they believe it, even if no one else does.

"Don't have no reason not to," safety Jeremy Chinn said of the collective confidence this unlikely team now possesses. "Even if it's only us in the whole world, that's what all need."

Sunday night, the Panthers looked like a team with playoff chances, as strange as that seemed two months ago.

Nothing about this season has made much sense, from the coaching change in October to the trade of Christian McCaffrey to the release of the former starting quarterback and team captain Baker Mayfield six days earlier. With all that stuff, this team is supposed to be thinking about next year. They're not. They're thinking about playing meaningful games in December, something that hasn't happened here since 2018.

And they knew it on Monday, when they came out of a bye week with the kind of energy in practice you don't expect.

"Once we had that first day of practice on Monday, we knew what type of team we were going to be," Thompson said. "You talk about playoff mentality; I told them boys last night when I talked to the team, these are the games, if you want to be a playoff team, these are the games you have to win, these environments. And these guys showed up."

They did it in the kind of complementary fashion that has shown up at home (where they've won all three games under Wilks) but not on the road, not before this. They ran the ball well (223 yards), played keep-away by running all night (46 attempts), and made just enough plays in the passing game (120 yards between seven receivers) to make it work.

They also created plays on defense, intercepting a pair of passes (Smith's first multi-pick game of the season), and coming up with key third-down stops, which led to clock-killing drives.

"We talked about doing something that we haven't done all year, which is coming on the road, in a playoff environment, and winning a football game," Wilks said. "I couldn't be more proud of the men in that locker room than I am in the way that we finished that game today."

Part of the reason he was proud was that they finally did the thing they hadn't done. But the amount of stuff they had to overcome to get there made it more gratifying.

Asked about his own moist eyes, his own halting words at times, Wilks admitted the mountain of things this team has had to overcome was significant.

"It's thrilling, just for the men in that locker room for how hard they work, how dedicated they've been," Wilks said. "We found ourselves to be able to work through 'it.' I always talk about don't allow 'it' to get in the way, whatever 'it' may be. And, you know, it started with the coaching change. And you know, I can go on and on with the different things, with players leaving, coaches leaving, whatever. And you know, those men in that locker room, find a way to refocus and get it done."

A significant portion of that credit goes to Wilks, who had insisted to this team that they could, even when people pointed and laughed. They're 4-4 since he took over as interim coach after a 1-4 start under Matt Rhule. Now, they're building an identity by running the ball, but they're also reflecting their interim coach, who said from the first day it wasn't about him, but that he was going to do it his way, unapologetically.

"We ride behind Wilks," Thompson said. "He came in here, he's a true alpha, he's a true leader, and guys follow behind him.

"He's done amazing. Look what we've been going through."

Thompson knows. He was a part of the only other team in Panthers history to win in this building back in 2015.

So Saturday night, Wilks asked him to tell his teammates about it. That meant describing the fire alarm that went off the night before that win seven years ago. That means talking about being behind late and rallying to beat a team in the fourth quarter.

He also brought a prop. The Panthers have a length of rope in the defensive meeting room, and the message is simple.

"We held the rope," Thompson said, and it wasn't just a figure of speech.

Now, the Panthers have four games to make it matter even more, a chance to make the playoffs. With the 49ers beating the Buccaneers Sunday night, the Panthers are a game behind the division leaders, with a trip to Tampa — and their futures — ahead of them.

"We always just stayed together," Thompson said. "That's the biggest thing. Win, lose or draw, we were staying together. We were all going to fight for each other. All of our names are on this team, and we're going to go out with a bang.

"Everybody's buying in. We're one game behind, and we're taking each one one at a time. I couldn't be more proud of this team."

Go inside the locker room and on the field for the post-game celebration after Sunday's win in Seattle.

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