CHARLOTTE – When the Carolina Panthers trotted into the locker room for halftime of Saturday's playoff game against the Arizona Cardinals, it was hard to believe that the Panthers were facing a deficit.
But while fans around Bank of America Stadium and in front of their televisions couldn't help but wonder if their Panthers were going to find a way to lose, the players in the locker room never lost belief.
"It was upbeat as usual," said fullback Mike Tolbert, whose second-half touchdown reception helped Carolina rally to a 27-16 victory. "You would think we had the lead. Guys knew what we could do, knew the capability of our team versus theirs. We just needed to put it together and execute."
The Panthers dominated the first half everywhere except on the scoreboard, with a pair of massive mistakes opening the door for Arizona to lead 14-13 at the halfway mark.
Carolina piled up 208 yards and 16 first downs while holding the Cardinals and third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley to 65 yards. But 32 of those yards added up to two touchdowns: a 30-yard drive – half the yardage via penalty – after Brenton Bersin turned the ball over fielding a punt; and a 17-yard drive after a Cam Newton interception.
"They got two touchdowns off of turnovers, and after all that work, we found ourselves behind," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We felt like we really controlled the game in the first half. We dominated in every category, but the turnovers were the difference.
"Obviously, we were frustrated."
Frustrated yes, but not flustered, as a determined group headed back onto the field for the second half.
"Our will would not be broken," safety Roman Harper said. "We knew we were fine."
In the second half, the defense allowed just 12 yards, while the offense scored 14 points. The domination continued, and this time it showed up on the scoreboard.
When the Panthers headed back to the locker room after the game, they had the franchise's first playoff victory since the 2005 season in hand.
Head coach Ron Rivera presented the game ball to linebacker Luke Kuechly, whose second-half interception thwarted another golden scoring opportunity handed to Arizona via a turnover. Then linebacker Thomas Davis, the only player on the roster had who experienced a playoff victory in a Panthers uniform, presented Rivera with a game ball for his first playoff triumph as a head coach.
"I'll enjoy this tonight, but we'll be in tomorrow, trying to figure it out," Rivera said. "This is a big victory for us as a football team. Hopefully, we'll have some more big ones."
How quickly things have changed for Rivera and Co. Less than a month ago, they kicked off their Week 14 game at New Orleans just trying to win a game, having lost six in a row and needing a win to preserve any hopes of making the playoffs.
Now they have a playoff victory, and they're aiming for more. No one is going to be truly upset following a victory in the survive-and-advance world that is the NFL playoffs, but Rivera realizes that Saturday's showing likely won't get the job done next weekend against either Seattle or Green Bay.
"I told them we played against a good football team and that we were very fortunate to come out ahead," Rivera said. "We played better – that's why we won – but the truth of the matter is that we can play a whole lot better.
"We didn't play as smart as I would have liked, and that bothers me. But several of our guys stepped up and made big plays."
After addressing his team in the locker room, Rivera had his players go back out onto the field for a victory lap of sorts to thank the fans.
"Winning is fun," center Ryan Kalil said. "It's fun for the team. It's fun for family and friends. It's fun for the whole community. The city is different when you're winning. It's exciting. That's a cool thing about sports.
"Knowing how we felt last year after that loss to the Niners (in the NFC Divisional Playoff), we're carrying that with us, and we're making sure we explain that to the young guys who weren't here. We're doing everything we can to make sure we don't feel that way again."
The Panthers don't feel like they played winning football at all times Saturday, but they won. At the end of the day, that's what matters in January.
"We've got to clean some stuff up," Olsen said. "That was by no means our best game, but I think that's positive because when you can play OK and still win pretty handily, that's a credit to what we're capable of."