More than three weeks ago, after a difficult loss to an emotional Kansas City Chiefs team, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera proclaimed during his weekly press conference that the final month of the season would be about evaluating the most inexperienced parts of the roster, all while still trying to win.
It seemed like the wisest approach for a team out of playoff contention but not necessarily the best approach from a selfish standpoint for a coach battling to keep his job.
"I'm not going to worry about that. I'm going to worry about these next four games, and then going forward we'll see what happens," Rivera said at the time. "If the young guys play well, that's a good sign. We have to find out what they're capable of."
How, one had to wonder, could a 3-9 team possibly win games with backups playing prominent roles?
Well don't look now, but the Panthers are 3-0 since Rivera's decision.
"There are a lot of good things happening for this young group of football players," Rivera said following Sunday's 17-6 victory over the Oakland Raiders. "It is very satisfying to see them develop."
While Rivera announced his intention to play younger players, many of his moves related to the starting lineup were dictated by mounting injuries, especially on defense.
The defense featured five different starters a week after the Kansas City loss. Frank Kearse and Andre Neblett started at the defensive tackle spots for the injured Edwardses (Ron and Dwan), Jason Phillips at linebacker for James Anderson, and D.J. Campbell at strong safety for Charles Godfrey.
The one true "coach's decision" came at cornerback, where second-year prospect Josh Thomas got the call over rookie Josh Norman, who had started the first 12 games.
Rivera also found ways to get more snaps for other youngsters, like at defensive end where rookies Frank Alexander and Nate Chandler played more and late-season acquisition Mario Addison saw his first playing time. On offense, Gary Barnidge got more opportunities as the Panthers featured more two tight-end sets, and running back Armond Smith joined rookie Joe Adams as energetic additions on special teams.
And what happened? The youngsters blended beautifully with suddenly rejuvenated regulars in the lineup. Cam Newton, Steve Smith and DeAngelo Williams on offense and Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly, Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy on defense led the way with plenty of help from the newcomers for a 30-20 romp over a one-loss Atlanta team that wasn't nearly as close as the final score suggested.
The next week at San Diego, it was more of the same. Godfrey returned from a back injury but Campbell remained in the lineup with Haruki Nakamura lost to injury. Jeff Byers filled in for injured center Geoff Hangartner, and midseason addition James Dockery got more chances at corner.
The Panthers won 31-7.
Then on Sunday, the Panthers started with a similar lineup to the previous week, only to have an in-game injury test their depth even more. Left guard Amini Silatola left with an injured wrist on the game's second play, forcing center-by-trade Thomas Austin and tackle-by-trade Bruce Campbell to fill in at guard.
Again, Carolina came out on top.
No individual players have emerged to levels of stardom since getting their chance, but the very definition of a "team" has emerged. Many a team in the same shoes wouldn't have handled the deluge of injuries as well. Even fewer teams would have put up such a spirited fight with the playoffs not even a mathematical possibility.
A victory at New Orleans would be sweet icing on the cake following a bitter start to the season. But regardless, Rivera, the future cornerstones of the franchise and a collection of players that many saw as simply names at the end of the roster have pieced together a stretch run that few believed possible.