CHARLOTTE – New Orleans native Trai Turner has vivid and fond memories of the Panthers' trip to his hometown nearly one year ago today.
"It was a big game for me, getting to play in front of my family and friends. And this team came to play," said Turner, the Panthers' starting right guard then and now. "We started off fast and just kept going."
That's an understatement.
The fast start came in the form of a 17-0 lead less than nine minutes into the game. And oh how the Panthers have kept it going – they haven't lost a regular season game since.
"That game played into the momentum late last season and definitely is carrying over into this season," Turner said.
As amazing as Carolina's 15-game winning streak in regular season games is, what makes it even more remarkable is that it started on the heels of a long losing streak. The week before the New Orleans game, on a single-digit-degree day in Minnesota, the Panthers dropped their sixth consecutive game, 31-13 to the Vikings, to fall to 3-8-1 on the season.
When the Panthers visit the Saints this Sunday, Carolina will be 371 days removed from that loss and 364 days removed from the victory that started it all.
"It was special," said safety Roman Harper, who was playing in his first road game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that day after spending eight seasons in the Saints locker room. "We weren't the most successful team at the time, and to go down there and beat a good Saints team like that – on the road, in a tough environment – was awesome. The score was 41-10, and for us to go out there and do that was amazing.
"That really propelled us to the next level because we started to reap what we had sewn. We started to see the results that we had hoped to get."
As crazy as it might have sounded entering that game – though it doesn't sound crazy now – the Panthers truly believed they were on the verge of something big. Harper credits head coach Ron Rivera for fueling a belief that eventually led to a four-game winning streak and the improbable playoff berth that followed.
"We were so close," Rivera said. "We went through an awful lot, had a lot of things to overcome. Crazy things kept happening, and we kept saying, 'Gosh, it's right there in front of us. At some point, we're going to take advantage of it.'
"I just really felt like we wanted it. I really felt we had the type of leadership in that locker room to keep pushing. We just needed something good to happen, and sure enough, it did."
Since then, the good times have rolled. From there, the Panthers rallied to become the first team to win back-to-back NFC South titles and won their first playoff game in 10 years. Now they find themselves on the cusp of a third consecutive division crown. They'll travel to New Orleans with an 11-0 record and the ability to claim the division with a victory.
While it's certainly a nice moment to look back on, it's not something the Panthers dwell on. The victory in New Orleans may have started the streak, but it's not what keeps it going.
"There's no carryover," quarterback Cam Newton said. "I don't know why we're still talking about last year. We're 365 days from that point. Now it's all about a new season, a new team, a new process each and every week."
The man who snaps the ball to Newton said that weekly process is what drives their success. Center Ryan Kalil believes in momentum, but even more so he believes in the power of positive reinforcement.
The pain of last year's losing streak followed immediately by the pure pleasure of plastering the rival Saints created a new, powerful mindset that persists today.
"The more you can win, the more you get used to that feeling and you get used to how to finish games and remove doubt from inside the locker room," Kalil said. "That's huge, and then you fight to hold onto that throughout each week, and that's what we've been doing.
"We understand how hard we work throughout the week. Then we win a game, and then we've got to recreate that each week and hold onto what that feeling is like in the locker room after a game. It's a good feeling."
The longer the Panthers keep winning, the longer they'll be asked to stand around in the locker room and answer questions about their pursuit of perfection. The Panthers want to win every game they play – like they've done for one year running now – but winning is more about enjoying the moment like they did that day in New Orleans than it is about making history.
"We understand how special that is more than 16-0 or any of that stuff," Kalil said. "It's just winning games one week at a time, and this is a team that's really done a good job of that."
View photos from the Panthers' week of practice leading up to their game against the Saints.