CHARLOTTE – Greg Olsen considered Sunday "an awesome day all around" for the Carolina Panthers, from the heartfelt salute to soldiers who sacrificed their lives for freedoms like football to the way the Panthers took advantage of that opportunity with a victory over the Green Bay Packers.
It was the kind of day that Olsen, the only non-quarterback skill position player in the NFL to play every offensive snap this season, would have actually liked to savor a little.
"Those are the games you want to just be standing on the sideline at the end enjoying because the game is over, the fans are cheering and it's out of reach," Olsen said. "But we haven't gotten there yet. We've got to continue working, continue to work on finishing games. We will."
"Finish" was the most commonly uttered word after the Panthers held on for a 37-29 victory at Bank of America Stadium.
The Packers seemed finished when Carolina put them in a 37-14 hole with 9:22 left, but less than six minutes later, the Packers positioned themselves to tie the game by picking up 22 yards and a two-point conversion.
"We just make it exciting," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "I don't know why we keep making it so nerve-racking."
The Panthers, for the second consecutive week, did eventually finish off an opposing offense that got hot at the right time behind a quarterback built for comebacks. Last week, it was Andrew Luck bringing the Indianapolis Colts back from a 16-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter to actually take a lead in overtime before the Panthers prevailed. Sunday, it was Aaron Rodgers bringing the Packers all the way back – well, almost all the way back.
"We really do need to clean up the fourth quarter. This is the second straight game we had a team down big and we let them claw back," said defensive end Jared Allen, who has battled Rodgers at least twice a season every year since 2008. "But I'll take a win any day, especially against an organization like the Packers. I've been in plenty of games where Aaron brings them back at the end, so to be able to close it out and get the W is good."
The usage of the word "finish" wasn't used just as a reference to the final minutes of Sunday's showdown, one that saw the Panthers improve to 8-0 – two games clear of their closest suitors in the NFC. There was just as much talk about this Carolina team finishing what it has started, about not just standing on the sideline and admiring a historic start to the season but rather pushing for a historic finish (there's that word again).
"It's a great feeling – this what we wanted to do coming into the season - but we understand that eight wins doesn't get you a whole lot," Kuechly said. "We've got to keep building, keep winning games to get in the position we want to be."
Last season, the Panthers didn't even win eight games over the entirety of the regular season, but they showed the power of finishing strong. Sitting at 3-8-1, they refused to pack it in and won the rest of the regular season games to capture the NFC South title and a playoff berth. They haven't lost a regular season game since, having now reeled off 12 consecutive victories.
"It's what we expected," defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "If we stayed disciplined and did what we were capable of, we didn't have any doubt this could happen. But we've got to stay humble, disciplined and ready to work every day."
The Panthers' only loss in the last 11 months came in the playoffs, on the home field of the two-time reigning NFC champion Seattle Seahawks. Three weeks ago, the Panthers won at Seattle to start a seemingly daunting stretch of the schedule that ended Sunday and included primetime wins over the Eagles and the Colts.
They now have a two-and-a-half game lead over Atlanta atop the NFC South standings after the Falcons' improbable loss in San Francisco and a two-game lead over three teams – including the Packers – for home field throughout the NFC playoffs.
They aren't finished.
"It's only significant if we continue to win," safety Roman Harper said. "We can't slow down. We've got to keep going and finish the season the right way.
"Just now are we starting the playoff push. We understand teams are on our heels, so we've got to keep going. There is no slowing down. We've got to be better tomorrow than we were today."
View the top photos by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez from Carolina's game against Green Bay.