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Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have found a spirit this season

Ian Thomas

CHARLOTTE — On a day of records set by the Panthers and the elements surrounding them, it might have been one of the little things that stood out the most on Christmas Eve.

On the sideline in the second half, after the Panthers drove for a touchdown that helped them pull away from the Lions in a 37-23 win, tight end Tommy Tremble sat on the heated bench on the sideline with his teammates, wearing a red and white Santa Claus hat.

A little thing. A goof. A symbol. But as the man says during the beloved holiday special, "Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more."

Football is supposed to be a serious thing. And it should be if it's your job. But it's possible that it can also be fun, especially on a day when you set records for total yards (570), rushing yards (320), and the coldest home game in Panthers franchise history (20 degrees at kickoff).

Tommy Tremble

"Got a good little present from my boy Ian Thomas. He provided me with the Christmas spirit, man," Tremble said with a laugh when asked about his sideline attire. "Keep the vibes up high during the game. Really looked after me."

Again, it's a small thing, a moment in time, a snapshot that's part of a larger scene — while the Panthers weren't otherwise bashing a good Lions team about the head and shoulders.

But it also speaks to something that's happening here at a time when it isn't necessarily supposed to be fun — and didn't appear to be heading that way early in the year.

The Panthers got off to an ugly 1-4 start and fired a head coach. The next week, they traded away a guy who didn't want to be here. Days later, they traded away their best offensive player, a guy who did want to be here, actually.

And then, a weird thing happened. They started playing better. The Panthers have won three of their last four games and four of their last six and have found themselves (miraculously and inexplicably) in the playoff hunt. That's not supposed to happen when coaches get fired and players the magnitude of Christian McCaffrey get traded. (Oh, by the way, they'd also eventually cut their opening week starting quarterback, a team captain, and former No. 1 overall pick. But that came later, and it feels like a footnote in the story of this season.)

Interim coach Steve Wilks has taken an odd lot of a roster, a still-young one at that, and the changes he's made to his staff have been subtractions rather than additions. None of this was by design. With it, he's been able to create something tangible over the last 10 weeks. Not just the kind of team that can run with anybody in the NFL (other than AFC North, I suppose), but the kind of team where a backup tight end can sit on the bench in the freezing cold, and grin and use a Santa Claus hat to "keep my ears warm" and it seems totally normal.

"I think really just us sticking together, and really just being a family, not just a team, is what kept us together," Tremble said when asked why he thought this particular combination has worked. "That keeps emotions in check during the season, the highs and the lows. It really just kept us together. That togetherness allows us to be ourselves. And that allows us to compete at the highest level, and it results in stuff like today.

"It comes from the people we have in this building. The coaches, the players, the staff. We've built a really good system and a really good place. That's where I think it came from. I know a lot of teams; they do the job, they go home. We love coming here. Every day. It feels different. It feels like a family. And that's what I love about this place."

Wilks will get a substantial amount of credit — and he should for patching the holes in the bottom of his boat and continuing to paddle — but it's not just him. He can preach a message — and he does; the man has plenty of sayings — but the players in the locker room have to buy in and play well to make the motivation work.

Saturday, it clearly did. One of Wilks' mantras is "don't let 'it' get in the way, whatever 'it' may be." In his world, "it" can be everything from the temperature outside, to external noise, to injuries that compromise the lineup. But every day, his message is the same.

This week, that's going to be tested. The Panthers have Sunday off to unwrap the packages at home and the memories of a dominant win, and when they come back in Monday, all the work will be focused on this week's game. Yes, they have a real shot at the playoffs after a ridiculous start to the season. But that chance comes against some guy named Tom Brady, and likely without the guy best equipped to slow him down (injured cornerback Jaycee Horn). They've won four of their five home games under Wilks, but the last two this year are on the road. There's a lot of "it" stacking up all at once.

"Proud of the men and how they came out and bounced back and played," Wilks said Saturday night. "Everything that we talk about is just one at a time. We are going to enjoy tomorrow with our families, enjoy Christmas. We are going to get back in here Monday at 1 o'clock, put this game to bed and get ready for Tampa. Our mindset is still the same. It's about winning the day."

It's a simple message, but it's taken root here.

Right guard Austin Corbett is one of the few guys in the locker room who knows what the playoffs are all about. Part of the reason he's here is that he can show teammates a Super Bowl ring won last year with the Rams and explain what it takes to acquire one. He can also tell them how that team didn't win a game in November and how they responded.

That's why he enjoyed a personality win like Saturday's, when the offensive line didn't let the Lions touch Sam Darnold and put up record numbers on the ground, all while doing it in sub-freezing conditions.

"To come out here and be that more physical team, not let the cold be a thing," Corbett said. "Ignore that, not let it get in the way, and just go out and dominate."

Hear that? The Wilks-ism has slipped into their subconscious and is part of who they are now.

It bears repeating, that none of this is supposed to be happening. From the outside, it was reasonable to think this team was irreparable and heading for nothing in particular. Instead, they're headed to Tampa on the first weekend of January with a division title at stake.

Asked to square those two realities, the nightmare start to this season and the sudden rush of hope and possibility, Corbett couldn't help but laugh.

"Yeah, the world was falling, the sky was falling, whatever chaotic terms you want to bring, that's kind of where we were," he said. "But it speaks on coach Wilks and his leadership and his ability to settle things down. Just take a deep breath and relax. Just the buy-in from the entire team is exactly what you want.

"It doesn't matter where you start; it's all about your finish. And playoffs is all about who's hot at the right time. I think the guys finally understand that. This division is up for grabs, and it is in our hands to go get it done, and we wouldn't want it any other way."

View the best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 16 game against the Detroit Lions on Christmas Eve.

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