CHARLOTTE – The Panthers went winless for seven weeks before winning their last three to set up an NFC South championship in Atlanta.
How? How did they manage to keep that seven-game frustration from derailing their season?
There are a lot of reasons. Important factors include the steady, even-keeled leadership of the coaching staff, the settling in of the offensive line, the defense recapturing its stingy identity, and of course, the wide-open nature of the NFC South.
Every player in the locker room has their own unique perspective. Below are some of their thoughts.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly: "You fight so hard during the offseason and camp and the preseason, and when things don't go how you want them to, it's not how you envisioned it. There was a two-month stretch where we didn't win. But you have 16 games, and every team's road is different. Our road has been difficult. But the coaches kept us together, and guys kept the locker room in good spirits. That's just a testament to our team."
Tight end Greg Olsen: "It says a lot about staying the course. I think our coaches have done a good job. At no point has anybody panicked and tried to blow everything up. We've made sound moves.
"I think our offensive line has done a really good job. Those five guys have settled in. They are feeling pretty good about playing next to one another. Guys have continued to fight through the tough times. And Stew (running back Jonathan Stewart) has carried the torch now for the last few weeks. When he's healthy, he's as good as there is."
Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery: "You have to have the right dudes in the locker room – that's what it boils down to. Obviously, you have to have some guys that can play, but you have to have the right guys with good football character. Guys that are able to continue to work hard to get better individually to help this team collectively.
"And the coaches have done a great job of trusting the process. They've come in with the same approach each week. That's tough to do in the NFL when you go on a winless streak like we did. But the coaches have been resilient, and it's been the same in this locker room. It's a testament to everybody that's a part of this organization."
Safety Roman Harper: "We just came to work every day. We didn't allow negativity to seep in. We didn't point fingers. We stuck together. We still laughed, we still joked. And Coach (Ron) Rivera did a great job keeping guys motivated and understanding that it wasn't over.
"I've learned one thing being in this league as long as I have: there has to be a certain level of trust throughout a locker room, throughout an organization. You have to trust that a plan is in place to give the players success. When everyone trusts that plan, we all pull in the same direction. The plan here has not changed."
Linebacker Thomas Davis: "We remained focused. We never lost sight of our goals. The other teams in our division helped us out by continuing to lose, and now we are in position to win the division. Throw out the record, throw out what has happened this season. We have a chance to do something special – something that hasn't been done."