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Surprising Panthers on verge of postseason bid

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — With the Carolina Panthers about to complete their 20th year, Jerry Richardson is still waiting to check off one of the biggest items on his NFL owner bucket list: a Super Bowl win.

They Panthers still have a chance — barely — to accomplish that feat that feat this season.

First things first, of course. The Panthers must win the de facto NFC South title game Sunday in Atlanta to get into the playoffs. If they do, they would become the first team to earn back-to-back championships in the division’s 13-year history, and Carolina would punch postseason tickets in consecutive seasons for the first time.

“We’re trying to develop something that we can carry on not just this year, something that we can continue year after that and year after that,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “That’s the goal right now, but we know it all starts with taking care of this game that we have this weekend.”

While the Panthers were tail-spinning during a six-game losing streak last month, there was some thought that they should start focusing on next year. Their late-season rally showed why thoughts like that were a bit silly.

In the NFL, a winning culture is a rare thing, and it is something Richardson has chased for two decades. He has long-admired the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have won more Super Bowls (six) and played in more conference championship games (15) than any team in history. Since the Steelers had a 62-year head start, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but it is what Richardson aspires to.

Before coming to Carolina in the last offseason, receiver Jerricho Cotchery spent three years in Pittsburgh. And while the Steelers went on a rare slump, failing to make the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, the expectations were impossible to miss.

“They have a saying over there, ‘The standard is the standard,'” Cotchery said. “The guys before them set the standard, so anytime you step on the field, if you don’t meet that standard, that’s not good enough. They expect to be playing winning football this time of year.”

When the Panthers tore down their receiving corps and made conservative financial commitments last spring, that did not necessarily scream, “We’re trying to win a Super Bowl this season!” Yet the moves were pragmatic, and they were not necessarily a white flag for 2014. Instead, they were made with a longer game in mind.

“I think they’re building the right thing around here,” Cotchery said. “They’ve got a good group of guys that you can win some games with, and years down the road, you can look back on and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re looking for.'”

“Now it’s about getting the young guys to embrace that, because that’s where it starts. Put the right people in place, make some history and try to create a legacy for this organization.”

A Panthers win Sunday still would leave them below .500. However, a victory against the Falcons followed by three playoff wins would leave Carolina at an unofficial 10-8-1. That also would get them to the Super Bowl, and one win away from completing Richardson’s ultimate dream.

But again, first things first.

“You think about a lot of things, and you hope to get opportunities,” Rivera said. “It’s all a moot point if we don’t take care of business on Sunday.”

–This is the 40th regular-season meeting between the Panthers and Falcons. The Falcons lead the series, 24-15. The Panthers won three straight meetings before Atlanta won this year’s first matchup in Week 11. Carolina snapped a five-game losing streak at the Georgia Dome when it clinched the NFC South title in Week 17 last season.

–It took eight NFL seasons, including three consecutive record-breaking years in Carolina, but Greg Olsen finally got his due. The Panthers tight end was selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career Tuesday night.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance last year, was the only other Panther selected.

Through 15 games, Olsen already shattered his own single-season team records for most receptions and receiving yards by a tight end. Before this year, he had eight or more catches in a game just three times in his career. He has had four such games already this season, including career-best 10-reception performances in back-to-back weeks against the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Among NFL tight ends, Olsen is tied for the most receptions (82), and he is second in receiving yards (981).

When asked about the Pro Bowl on Tuesday afternoon, Olsen repeated the answer he gave the past few weeks: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to make it or if it wouldn’t mean a lot to me to make it because of course it would. It’s been something I haven’t really been able to kind of get over that hump.”

Kuechly, who outpaced all middle linebackers in the fan vote, leads the NFL with 145 tackles, and he has career highs in passes defensed (10) and sacks (3.0).


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