The Carolina Panthers have become clutch.
For the second straight week, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton engineered a go-ahead touchdown drive in the final minute to secure a come-from-behind win against a quality AFC opponent.
Last week, it was Tom Brady and the Patriots who fell victim to Newton's late-game heroics.
This week, the Panthers beat the Miami Dolphins 20-16 after Newton found tight end Greg Olsen to take the decisive lead with 43 seconds remaining. Carolina, which trailed 16-6 at halftime, shut out Miami in the second half with a swarming defense.
Panthers fans have always known that this team, now 8-3, had the talent to be a legit contender in the NFC.
But now – in the third year of the regime – things have changed.
After sputtering to a 1-3 start, the Panthers are winners of seven straight. More impressively, the team's last three victories against San Francisco, New England and Miami – all quality opponents – have come by a combined nine points.
Some of it boils down to sheer luck – a gratuitous bounce of the football, a picked up penalty flag, etc.
But the Panthers' ascension to the NFL elite is no accident.
The team's transformation has been years in the making – the product of deliberate patience by the Panthers brass.
No matter how inept the coaching staff looked at times over the last three seasons, owner Jerry Richardson (and first-year general manager Dave Gettleman) stuck with Ron Rivera – the hire of former GM Marty Hurney.
In today's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, many fans, pundits and executives want to bring in an entire new regime the minute things go south. But many times – certainly in the Panthers' case – patience is a virtue.
Continuity – enduring the bumps and bruises of the rebuilding process – has always been the emphasis in the Carolina front office.
The dedication to keeping things the same, allowing Newton and the young players to grow in the same system over multiple seasons, is paying off.
It has also been a valuable learning process for Rivera, who has gone from the edge of the hot seat to potential coach of the year candidate in a matter of months.
For Panthers fans, that means the bevy of painstaking losses over the past three seasons were not in vain, but rather the groundwork for the team's current success.
It was worth it.
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