CHARLOTTE – Bitterly cold.
That describes how things felt when the Carolina Panthers arrived at the University of Minnesota to face the Vikings back in Week 13 of the 2014 season.
It also describes how they felt when they departed the stadium after the coldest regular season game in Panthers history – a low moment to say the least.
"Whenever you lose, it's never a good feeling, but the way we lost, it kind of stuck in my brain," tight end Ed Dickson said. "They beat us on offense, defense and special teams. They beat us that day."
By a count of 31-13, the Vikings handed the Panthers their sixth consecutive loss, leaving the reigning NFC South champions at 3-8-1 heading to the final month of the 2014 season. Not all was lost however because the rest of the division kept losing, and despite the lopsided score that day, reasons for optimism also emerged.
One month later, the Panthers found themselves back in the playoffs after a perfect final month, and Sunday the Panthers will face the Vikings for the first time since that game.
Carolina's regular season record since that loss? 20-2.
"I'll never forget it because it was the first game I ever started in the regular season, but I'll never forget it because it was such a disappointing loss," right tackle Mike Remmers said. "We've improved a lot since then."
Entering that game, Remmers had played a total of four snaps in the NFL since signing as an undrafted free agent with the Broncos in 2012. He had spent the 2014 offseason with the Vikings and most of the regular season on the Rams practice squad. He had been with the Panthers for a month when he got the call to not only play but start against Minnesota.
Remmers replaced Nate Chandler, who had been placed on injured reserve after the Panthers' previous game. He joined an offensive line that had positioned Trai Turner at right guard and Andrew Norwell at left guard – both rookies – in the previous game, flanking center Ryan Kalil. Byron Bell continued to hold down the left tackle spot.
The Panthers didn't do nearly enough to win at Minnesota, but the new line did some promising things that day – a line that started the rest of the season and that remains the same today save the addition of Michael Oher at left tackle.
"At that point, we were still trying to find our identity," said Kalil, who helped the Panthers get a glimpse of it with a then-season-high 178 rushing yards. "We've matured a lot since then and have played a lot more consistent since then. Continuity has been a big deal for us and the success we've had the last few years."
From then until the end of the season, Jonathan Stewart ran neck-and-neck with DeMarco Murray of Dallas for the NFL lead in rushing yards. The subsequent play of Stewart, the new line in front of him and quarterback Cam Newton powered the offense to four consecutive victories to close the regular season.
On defense that day, the Panthers featured the same starting 11 they had in a loss to Atlanta in their previous game, but things eventually started to change. Two blocked punts returned for touchdowns and two touchdown passes by rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater helped the Vikings build a commanding 28-6 halftime lead.
In the second half, the Panthers turned to rookie Bene Benwikere at cornerback and rookie Tre Boston at free safety, pairing them with Josh Norman at corner and Roman Harper at strong safety. The rookies replaced a pair of veterans in Antoine Cason – who was released two days later – and Thomas DeCoud. Benwikere and Boston remained in the starting lineup from there, while DeCoud played a total of 14 defensive snaps the rest of the season,
"I just remember Coach at halftime talking about, 'We need to make plays. We need to revamp our defense and make sure we come out forcefully and strong,' " Benwikere said. "The goal was to finish that game strong. It was a terrible game, very cold, things just weren't going our way.
"But it was definitely a turning point because that's when they finally let us young guys play. We came in, showed that we could play and make plays, and it gave us new life and energy."
The next week, the Panthers showed that they had left the bitter cold behind in Minnesota, rolling over the rival Saints in New Orleans to jumpstart a 4-0 finish to the regular season, followed by the franchise's first playoff victory in a decade.
"It was a new wave to ride on," Benwikere said, "and we finished out the season well."