CHARLOTTE – In the days leading up to his first NFC Championship, his first opportunity to punch a ticket to the Super Bowl, quarterback Cam Newton recalled the dog days of training camp to answer a question about lessons the team has learned.
"I keep thinking back to OTAs and training camp, because that was the foundation that put us into the position that we're in now," Newton said.
This 17-1 team was molded in the blistering heat of Spartanburg, S.C. Fifteen days of drills. No glory. No bright lights. Just a drive to get better.
"That was the most physical, competitive (camp) – guys that were competing each and every snap whether you were second team, first team, or even third team battling," Newton continued. "That's what got us to this point and that's what's going to keep pushing us -- having this mentality each and every day."
"WE KNEW WE COULD BE GOOD"
For Ron Rivera, a head coach who loves any opportunity to play the underdog card, the national conversation surrounding his team entering training camp was a perfect storm.
"Expectations were very low," Rivera recalled. "We knew how good we could be. We didn't know we could be as good as we are right now, but we knew we could be good, and I think that's what drove a lot of our guys."
Said safety Roman Harper: "It was clearly the most talented Panthers team I had seen since I've been in the league."
Many assumed the Saints or Falcons would rise above the two-time defending NFC South champion Panthers. Some went so far as to suggest that Carolina would finish last in the division.
Rivera is always looking for things like this to motivate his team. He was handed a healthy serving of disrespect on a silver platter.
"People still didn't believe in what they saw at the end of 2014," said Rivera, whose team won its final four games to claim the division with a 7-8-1 record. "I thought that was pretty impressive. Why are we being disrespected?"
No one else took Carolina's late-season run in 2014 seriously. But it was huge for the team's confidence, especially knowing the franchise quarterback was finally 100 percent healthy after an injury-plagued season.
The Panthers went to training camp wholeheartedly believing they would make the doubters look foolish.
"We went to work harder," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "We knew the capabilities we had."
DEPTH AND COMPETITIVENESS
Kelvin Benjamin's season-ending knee injury became the story of Carolina's training camp. Coming off a 1,000-yard rookie season, the team's No.1 wide receiver tore his ACL during the second-to-last practice in Spartanburg.
As expected, the doubt from the outside multiplied.
"Sure we lost Kelvin, a 1,000-yard receiver," Rivera said. "But we still had guys who could play. We felt good about that."
Everyone focused on who the Panthers just lost. The players and coaches believed in who they had.
The two weeks of practice prior to Benjamin's injury revealed two things to Rivera and the front office: This team was very deep and very competitive. But those storylines didn't get much traction.
"It was competitive all the way across the board," Rivera said, "and that was impressive."
Said defensive end Mario Addison: "It was crazy, man. Every position group was strong. There was no walk in the park. Everybody came out swinging, and you had to be on top of your game or you were going to be left behind."
At one point in camp, Newton and cornerback Josh Norman's intensity boiled over. A scrum ensued, and they had to be separated. But after the team captains ensured Rivera they would take ownership of the situation and that it wouldn't escalate, the head coach realized his team was built to handle itself and battle for every inch.
"You are trying to create that competitive spirit. That's why you practice the way you practice. You want them to go at it. And quite honestly, I didn't have to do a lot of pushing. They did it themselves – that's what was beautiful about it," Rivera said.
"With our guys, it's not about what they have to do. It's about what they want to do. They want to play for each other."
THE SOURCE OF SUCCESS
It had been more than an hour since the game ended, teammates had already made their way home, but there was safety Kurt Coleman, standing at his locker in full pads wearing his NFC Champions T-shirt and hat proudly.
He was asked how it all felt.
He took a moment to think. And his mind went back to Spartanburg.
"This just isn't surprising to me," Coleman said. "As we got into training camp, I told my wife and family, 'There is something special about this team.' I'm having so much fun. I enjoy going to work. It was 110 degrees in Spartanburg, and I enjoyed going out there and practicing with these guys."
As a head coach, it doesn't get much better than hearing one of your players utter those words.
They believed in the process, believed in each other, believed in the system. And perhaps most importantly of all, they appreciated the sun-soaked battles in August to make this team what it is today.
"It felt very surreal standing on the platform when we got the NFC Championship trophy," Rivera said. "Just thinking about our guys and where we've come from. This is why you do it.
"And our players understand that we are not by any stretch of the imagination done."
View the top photos from training camp by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.