ATLANTA – For all the talented teams safety Roman Harper played for during his eight seasons in New Orleans, none of them ever accomplished what his Carolina Panthers team pulled off Sunday.
The Panthers are the first ever back-to-back NFC South champions – even after having their backs against the wall to say the very least.
"We were so down – the tunnel was very dark – but all we did was play right through it," said Harper, who returned an interception for a touchdown in a dominant 34-3 victory at the Atlanta Falcons that capped an amazing month of football. "We just stuck together as a team. Nobody ever complained. We just came to work every day, and we did it. We did something that's never been done."
The Panthers did it, somehow, even after a six-game losing streak dropped them to 3-8-1. Anywhere outside of the Carolina locker room, the final loss in the streak was viewed as the last straw – a 31-13 loss at the Minnesota Vikings.
But the Panthers preached that it wasn't over, then they practiced what they preached with a 41-10 victory at the New Orleans Saints with their seemingly faint playoff hopes on the line.
They followed that by grinding out home victories over Tampa Bay and Cleveland – the first one with backup quarterback Derek Anderson under center just five days after starter Cam Newton broke two bones in his back in a frightening car accident.
Newton returned for the victory against Cleveland that, combined with an Atlanta victory over New Orleans, set up the Panthers to play the Falcons on Sunday for all the marbles.
From the first play, the Panthers played like champions.
"We knew were going to be victorious today," cornerback Josh Norman said. "As soon as we stepped on the field, we had energy surging through each and every one of the guys. I couldn't be more proud of every one of them."
Norman's unbridled excitement encapsulated how the Panthers reached this unlikely point. Lesser teams would have moved on in their minds to thoughts of the offseason and next season following that dreary day in Minnesota, but this team did not.
They showed a rare resolve, and they saw it through Sunday.
"It speaks volumes about the character of this team," said linebacker Thomas Davis, who saw his offseason insistence that the Panthers would repeat come to fruition. "There were so many people counting us out, saying it couldn't be done, saying we needed to prepare for the future. We heard all that. But we went out and got the job done."
After the game in an emotionally charged locker room, head coach Ron Rivera offered a simple but so-true message to his team.
"No matter what happened," Rivera said, "we were a team."
Rivera's assessment would have been accurate win or lose. But it's so much sweeter following such a sweet victory.
"The season wasn't going the way we wanted it to early, but that doesn't matter now," said defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who recorded the first two-sack game of his career. "We're division champs."