What a regular season for the Carolina Panthers.
The 2013 campaign began in a way that everyone had seen before.
It ended in a way that nobody saw coming — as NFC South champions.
The Panthers were crowned division champs with a 21-20 victory over the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sunday — the same opponent and stadium where their season went awry in 2012.
In Week 4 of last season, the Panthers, then 1-2, entered the Georgia Dome hoping to rebound from an embarrassing nationally televised defeat to the New York Giants.
Despite squandering several chances to ice the game, Ron Rivera's team still found itself in a great position to win in the waning seconds. Up 28-27, Carolina pinned Atlanta — without any timeouts — on its own one-yard line with 59 seconds remaining.
The Panthers faithful will never forget the very next play, which drove a steak through their collective heart.
Matt Ryan connected with Roddy White for a 59-yard gain when Panthers safety Haruki Nakamura inexplicably allowed the receiver to get behind him.
You can relive that horror in the video below:
Two plays later the Falcons were in field goal range. Five plays later, Matt Bryant kicked the game-winning 40-yard field goal.
The crushing defeat sent the Panthers into a tailspin. With losses in five of its next six games, the team became eliminated from the playoffs in mid-November .
Sunday's game was virtually identical to last year's first meeting in Atlanta, except for one thing — the outcome.
The Panthers, leading by a single point, failed to run out the clock with vanilla offense in the final minutes of the game. Rivera opted to make the Falcons use all their timeouts before pinning them deep in their own territory.
While I watched this unfold, I couldn't help but conjure up memories (or nightmares) of last season's gut-wrenching loss. I cursed out the coaches for the conservative approach and prepared for history to repeat itself.
But it didn't.
A mistimed snap by center Joe Hawley with 31 seconds left squashed any hopes of another last-minute miracle for Atlanta.
That was it.
To me, it's a microcosm of the Panthers' season
Whether it was a botched coverage, an overthrown pass or just old-fashioned bad luck, the 2012 Panthers seemed to never make enough plays to win.
This year's team is just the opposite.
Either way, the habit is contagious. The same penalty flags, horrific no-calls and fluke plays that cost the team when it was losing suddenly begin to fall in its favor during a winning streak.
Once Ron Rivera became "Riverboat Ron," the aggressive-style head coach we've all come to love, it was like a switch flipped in the locker room.
All the sudden, the Panthers became confident. They believed in each other and no longer played with a hesitant, scared-to-lose mentality.
Cam Newton spoke of this change in mindset after the 38-10 win over Minnesota on October 13.
“I think he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree – and giving the whole team confidence with him," Newton told the Charlotte Observer.
Most importantly, the team started to win, and even got some lucky breaks on the way (thanks Clete Blakeman)!
The Panthers' improvement from 7-9 to 12-4 — much like the Falcons' decline from 13-3 to 4-12 — reveals just how paper thin the margin is between winning and losing in the NFL.
Of the many forces at work that influence the outcome of a game — injuries, weather, officiating, coaching, preparation, etc. — simple belief could be the most important.
When Ron Rivera began to believe in his team, the team began to believe in itself. A good coach not only devises a gameplan that puts his players in position to make plays, but also gives them the confidence to believe they can.
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