The Day After: Bringing the road energy home

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CHARLOTTE — The last two times the Panthers were away from home, they played some of their best football of the season, on both sides of the ball.

The next challenge is to bring that home.

With the record evened at 5-5 and the playoffs a realistic goal at this point, the Panthers are working on taking that same kind of complementary football they've seen in Atlanta and Arizona and showing it to the locals.

Doing that within the context of Cam Newton playing his first game back at Bank of America Stadium after returning last week adds another layer.

"It's not so much we played bad at home; it's this week we need to really play well at home," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said Monday. "Let's go play really, really well at home. I know our fans are excited. I know they're excited to see this team. I know they're excited to see Cam step back into Bank of America [Stadium] and all those things. There will be amazing energy early in the game.

"Now if we go out and execute and do our jobs, hopefully there will be amazing energy for 60 minutes. If we go out there and make mistakes and false start and put the ball on the ground, we'll get booed, as we should. My job is to focus on the football, get our team focused on the football, and we need to go play our best game at home."

Rhule said Monday morning, a little bleary eyed and drinking coffee after the team returned around 1:30 a.m., that he liked the signs he saw immediately.

"The challenge for us moving forward is to become a consistent team. That's what we have to start with today," Rhule said. "We got back really late last night; there was no victory Monday, there was no day off, we're back here working today. Because we have to become a consistent team, and to me, that comes from the daily discipline of becoming one percent better and attacking everything you do. That's my message; that's my approach.

"Like everyone else in this building, I'm tired from this trip, but I'm excited to play this week."

After the way they played Sunday, there's every reason for that.

The Panthers dominated the previously 8-1 Cardinals on both sides of the ball, with the defense creating takeaways and the offense turning them into touchdowns, with special teams doing its part, and many people beyond Newton doing their share.

It was similar to the output in Atlanta, when they ran 47 times for 203 yards and shut down the Falcons, and that was in a game without Newton (or Christian McCaffrey).

Rhule said he was having a conversation with cornerback Donte Jackson about that dynamic during the plane ride home — a plane ride during which no one slept, and Rhule saw an engaged, together team.

"I just think when you're on the road, you're kind of sequestered, the guys all go to eat together, you come back for meetings, you're in the hotel," Rhule said.

"Just the road trip vibes," Jackson said. "You're taking your guys, the guys you're every day in the building with, and you go to another city, and you just have that feeling where the whole city is going for the home team, and we're all we got. So we go out there and fight harder. It's just a mentality thing; you're on the road, you feel like everybody's against you. It just turns us up a little more when our backs are against the wall, I guess."

Likewise, when Newton was talking after the game Sunday night, he discussed the things he missed during his time away, the elements that make his return special.

"It's the little things," he said of the accountability that's born from togetherness. "It's the dinners. It's the cigar talks. It's the text messages. It's the. 'Hey bro, come on now.' It's those interactions that as players, you miss."

And having done it a few times lately, the goal is to replicate that feeling when the world is not necessarily against them.

As he did after the Atlanta game, Rhule singled out the fans who made the trip as important, as there were a solid number of Panthers fans who also made that long flight back Monday.

"We have a great group of guys, and when they get on the road they have some time together," Rhule said. "But we have a great fan base; we have a great stadium, we have a great atmosphere, we've got great hype men, we've got great TopCats, we've got great traditions.

"When we hit that (Keep Pounding) drum this week, it should feel like it hasn't felt. It should feel unbelievable. Because we've been through a lot as a team this year. We're 5-5, we went on the road, . . . and not many people thought we would win. So we should come back and prove to ourselves in this locker room that we can play good football and win back-to-back games. To me, you can find all these little things, and it starts with our preparation in practice and our standard of execution in the game."

And that's something they'll need to do Wednesday and Thursday and throughout the week, long before the show starts on Sunday.

View all of the best photos from pre-game, in-game and post-game from Carolina's big win at Arizona.

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