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Ryan Kalil has been glue that held Carolina's line together

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Right tackle Mike Remmers was engrossed in a conversation in the corner of the Carolina Panthers locker room with the player who shares the space next to his.

He doesn't remember if the topic was football or lines from movies, although he'd bet it was the latter based on previous such conversations.

But no matter what happens in Saturday's NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals, the rest of this season or his journeyman NFL career, Remmers will remember the person who shared the conversation.

Throughout eight lineup changes on the offensive line due to injuries, throughout questions about whether this group was good enough to play winning football, one thing has remained constant.

Ryan Kalil.

The four-time Pro Bowl center has held things together when everything seemed to be falling apart. Remmers knows why.

"He's an absolutely amazing athlete," said Remmers, who didn't join the team until midseason and didn't become a starter until the 12th game. "He goes out there and picks up the energy with all the players. He's not only an amazing player, he's an amazing person.

"Everyone on the team, not just the offensive line, likes him. He's the nicest guy that brings it every single day."

Kalil is playing as well or better than at any point in a career that began in 2007 when he was a second-round pick out of Southern California. He has helped develop a pair of rookie tackles, Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner, to solidify the interior line around him.

That's made it easier for Remmers and left tackle Byron Bell to do their jobs.

"A lot falls on Kalil's plate," Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said. "That gets overlooked sometimes. He's in control of a lot of things up front. I'm sure if you ask him, things have gotten a lot easier since the guys around him have settled into being stable and guys not rotating in and out."

The same starting five has played the last five games. That means the communication that begins with Kalil has been less of an issue because there's now chemistry.

"Without Kalil in that stretch [of changes] it would have been tough," Olsen said. "If you're going to have one consistent guy, having a Pro Bowl center is a good place to start."

Kalil had to get outside of his comfort zone at times. Normally quiet despite being one of the funnier players on the team, he had to take on the leadership role that left tackle Jordan Gross and guard Travelle Wharton had before retiring.

"He's not a big rah-rah guy, but he leads because he's really smart," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "He communicates on the field and more so than anything else by his production."

The evolution of the Carolina line has made the entire offense more productive. The Panthers have averaged close to 200 yards rushing the past five games.

Keeping that pace against an Arizona defense that has given up more than 200 yards rushing in the last two games will be key. Keeping in check a front seven that sacked quarterback Cam Newton seven times last season also will be important.

It all begins with Kalil.

"He's an ultimate pro," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "So he knows how to do his job the right way and get guys to lead them without having to push them too much."

Kalil admits the leadership role has been an adjustment, but he's had good role models.

"The guys I always respond to are the guys that lead by example, so I just try to do my job the best every day," he said.

Early in the season, with Gross and Wharton gone, Kalil relied heavily on coach Ron Rivera as a sounding board.

"He didn't have that comfort companion," Rivera said. "He lost guys that he had been with. We had four veteran guys that he had starting beside him or worked with four years."

Lately, Kalil has spent more time talking to Remmers and his young guards. They've responded, which has been big during Carolina's four-game winning streak.

"It's really been neat to watch him direct that young group of men," Rivera said.

It's something Remmers never will forget.