Gross' speech launched trek to title

ATLANTA -- If you're in search of that key moment that turned the Carolina Panthers' season around, here you go:

The date was Oct. 13, 2013.

The place was the visitors locker room at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

Left tackle Jordan Gross was frustrated. The Panthers were 1-3 and he felt they were better than that. So before the team took the field, he asked coach Ron Rivera if he could say a few words.

Gross began with an analogy from the 1986 film "Highlander," depicting the climax of an age-old battle between immortal warriors.

"A dad tells a kid how you become a man," Gross said Sunday after Carolina clinched the NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye with a 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. "He said you have a wolf on both shoulders. One's good, tells you to work hard, believe, trust, commit. The other one's bad, tells you to doubt, cheat, laziness, whatever.

"And the kid says, 'Well, which one wins?' And the dad said, 'Whichever one you feed.' So it was in the middle of some choice words and some yelling and other things. So that became part of our battle cry this season, was that we're a wolf pack and we feed the wolf."

The Panthers defeated the Vikings 35-10 that day. Then, they beat the St. Louis Rams 30-15 in a game filled with a few on-the-field scuffles in which Carolina players kept their poise but stood up for each other.

Next thing you know, they'd won eight straight.

Sunday's win was the 11th in 12 games, making Carolina the NFL's hottest team entering the playoffs, guaranteed a home game in two weeks.

From free safety Mike Mitchell to center Ryan Kalil, players pointed to Gross' speech as the turning point.

"Jordan really expressed how everybody was feeling, that the time is now and we've got to make a choice and stop waiting for somebody to make it for us," Kalil said. "It's on the players."

The win against Atlanta was a microcosm of that speech. In the final minutes, in a stadium where Carolina had a 4-14 overall record, the Panthers made the plays to secure the victory instead of giving up plays to give it away.

They did the little things that they seemingly couldn't during the first month of the season, which included two losses by a touchdown or less.

They did it in an unselfish manner. Defensive end Greg Hardy, who had four sacks to tie the team's single-season sack record (15) held by Kevin Greene, wasn't even aware of his total until somebody told him.

"I don't know what the odds were when we were 1-3 that we'd end up winning the division and getting a [first-round] bye," Gross said. "But we believe, and that's a powerful thing."

Having the league's second-ranked defense, a unit that sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan nine times and hurried him another 14, doesn't hurt. Neither does having quarterback Cam Newton, who when his arm let him down was able to lift the offense with his legs to the tune of 72 rushing yards.

Having unsung heroes such as cornerback Melvin White, who returned an interception 7 yards for a touchdown with Atlanta leading 10-0 in the second quarter, also doesn't hurt.

"It was kind of indicative of the whole season," Rivera said. "We have had to come back. We have won four games or five games now with last-second scores and stuff like that. It just shows that we can handle those situations and circumstances."

Gross knew that when he gave his emotional speech. But until Sunday, nobody had pinpointed the speech as a key moment.

"At that point, everyone knew," Gross said "We were better than 1-3 and we let teams beat us rather than [losing] to them. Sometimes the right mood strikes you to say something that is believable, authentic.

"But that's not what turned the season around. What turned the season around was believing in ourselves."

That belief doesn't end with winning the division title. There was no wild locker room celebration. There was the same focus and workman-like attitude the Panthers have shown all season.

Even team owner Jerry Richardson told the players they have much more to accomplish.

"It means we won the NFC South championship, but we know we still have unfinished business," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said as he put the victory into perspective. "We can't get excited over this win.

"We believe bigger and better things could happen."

Perhaps the greatest symbol of this team's unity was wide receiver Steve Smith. He could have stayed in Charlotte, rehabbing the sprained knee that kept him from playing.

Instead, he stood on the sideline and offered advice and motivation wherever he could. When Newton threw a second-quarter interception because of yet another high throw, the oft-excitable Smith came to him and said, "Calm down."

Newton did. He went on to complete 15 of 27 pass attempts for 149 yards and two touchdowns. Couple that with his running and it was an efficient effort from a player who desperately wanted to beat the Falcons in his hometown for the first time.

"Our guys fought and did the things we needed to do," Rivera said. "This wasn't pretty, but it was well-earned."

This 12-4 season has been well-earned. It happened after a start that had Rivera's future in doubt and players such as Gross frustrated because they knew they were better.

"People wrote us off," Davis said. "People started talking about Coach Rivera being on the hot seat. For that to happen, it falls back on the players. Once you start replacing coaches, you start replacing players as well.

"We started doing whatever we had to do so everybody would keep their jobs."

It began in Minnesota. It began with a speech by a 10-year veteran who'd had enough of losing.

"It worked out well because we won the game, so it's memorable," Gross said. "If we had lost, nobody would have remembered anything."

Now they won't forget.

Key moments seldom are.