The Panthers' defensive-minded head coach and the defense's coach on the field each claimed one the NFL's most prestigious honors Saturday.
Ron Rivera was selected as NFL Coach of the Year, and linebacker Luke Kuechly won NFL Defensive Player of the Year, accepting the honors during the NFL Honors award show in New York on the eve of Super Bowl XLVIII.
Considered the gold standard among the multitude of annual awards, the honors were presented by the Associated Press and determined by a vote of 50 media members who cover the NFL.
"It's a heck of an honor for our team," Rivera said. "This is for our coaches and our players, and also for Mr. (Jerry) Richardson, our fans and our entire organization.
"It's pretty exciting. I'm very happy for a lot of people."
Rivera received 21.5 votes. Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid finished second with 13.5 votes.
Rivera previously was named NFL Coach of the Year by the Professional Football Writers of America, the NFL 101 Awards, Sporting News and CBSSports.com. Last week, he signed a three-year contract extension through the 2017 season.
In his third year with the Panthers, Rivera led Carolina to 12 wins, the NFC South division title and their first playoff appearance since 2008. After starting the season with a 1-3 record, the Panthers won 11 of their final 12 regular season games – including a franchise record eight-game winning streak – to secure the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye.
Rivera said he couldn't have imagined this moment when the Panthers found themselves in a 1-3 hole.
"All I could imagine at that point was just trying to figure out how to win the next game," he said. "Then we really embraced the idea that the next game is the biggest game, and it took off from there."
Carolina's record has improved every season since Rivera took over a team that went 2-14 in 2010, with the Panthers going 6-10 in his first year, 7-9 in 2012 and 12-4 in 2013. Dating back to Week 12 of the 2012 season, the Panthers have won 17 of their last 22 regular season games.
Kuechly, who received 13 votes to edge Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts by 1.5 votes, has played a pivotal part in the Panthers' turnaround. He took over leadership of the defense midway through his rookie season in 2012 and has performed like a veteran in that role since Day One, being described by Rivera as the quarterback of the defense.
With Kuechly captaining the unit, the Panthers ranked second in the NFL in total and scoring defense in 2013, allowing 301.2 yards and 15.1 points per game.
"This represents our defense as a whole," Kuechly said. "Everybody worked hard the whole year and stayed together, and then as the season progressed we got some recognition.
"It's exciting. There were such a great group of guys up for it. It's an awesome award that came with a lot of hard work. It's just great."
Kuechly was NFL Rookie of the Year after leading the NFL with 164 tackles (based on press box stats) in 2012, and he ranked fourth this past season with 156 while tying for the team lead with four interceptions.
His 320 total tackles over his two NFL seasons are 20 more than anyone else in the league and averages to exactly 10 tackles per game. Based on coaches' film review, Kuechly has 381 tackles – nearly 12 per game.
"It has come fast," said Kuechly, the No. 9 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft out of Boston College. "I can remember that first day standing up on the podium and being introduced at Bank of America Stadium, and I didn't know what to expect.
"But I had a great group of guys around me, and then you just blink and here you are. Now we've got to keep it going."
Fellow linebacker Thomas Davis, one of the players Kuechly mentioned as a mentor, was one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award that went to Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman. Panthers rookie defensive tackle Star Lotulelei tied for fourth in voting for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award won by defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson of the New York Jets, and the Panthers' road rally over the San Francisco 49ers in Week 10 was one of five finalists for the GMC Never Say Never Moment of the Year.