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Panthers' defense, not their record, is now front and center

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tight end Greg Olsen isn't normally the go-to person for comments on the Carolina Panthers' defense, but in this case he was spot on.

"Unbelievable," Olsen said after Saturday's 27-16 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in an NFC wild-card game at Bank of America Stadium. "That has to be one of the greatest playoff performances in history. It's ridiculous."

It was ridiculous. And it was history.

The Panthers set an NFL playoff record by holding Arizona to 78 yards -- eight fewer than the Cleveland Browns gained against the New York Giants in a 1958 postseason game.

To put that in perspective, three times during the regular season, Carolina gave up more yards on a single play.

Granted, as coach Ron Rivera noted several times afterward, Carolina caught Arizona at a "good time" because the Cardinals were down to their third-string quarterback making his first playoff start.

But had the Cardinals started the water boy at quarterback, holding them to 78 yards still would have been impressive.

"I've been around some teams that played good defense," said wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who spent three years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and seven with the New York Jets before signing with Carolina during the offseason. "What they are doing right now is unreal."

That the Panthers entered the playoffs with a losing record (7-8-1) no longer is a topic of conversation. How far they can go in the playoffs with a defense that in the second half had three sacks and two interceptions and held the Cardinals to 13 yards -- minus-1 rushing -- now is front and center.

"If we keep playing defense the way we've been playing, and as long as we have No. 1 [Cam Newton] behind the center, we have a chance to do whatever we want," Cotchery said.

Newton earned his first playoff win, which on most days would be the big headline for such a high-profile player. But Newton was average at best; he completed 18 of 32 passes for 198 yards, two touchdown passes and an interception. The interception led to a touchdown that gave Arizona a 14-13 halftime lead. Newton's second-half fumble could've led to another Cardinals score, if not for Luke Kuechly's interception in the red zone.

"I thought it had its moments," coach Ron Rivera said of Newton's performance.

They were few and far between.

The defense, on the other hand, consistently had moments -- big ones. To be fair, that unit has been playing winning football for nine games. It has just been ramped up a notch during a five-game winning streak.

"That's championship football right there," Newton said.

It begins with Kuechly, the NFL's leading tackler this season. Carolina's middle linebacker had a team-best 10 tackles, an interception and a tipped pass that turned into another pick to keep the Cardinals from capitalizing on two late turnovers.

"I know [Houston's] J.J. Watts is a great player," Olsen said. "But you can't find a player that impacts a game in all areas more than Luke."

Kuechly, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, simply is getting more help now than he got earlier in the season, when there were frequent breakdowns during a seven-game winless streak.

The front four is smothering the run and getting pressure on the quarterback and has collected 10 sacks in the past two games. Defensive end Charles Johnson in particular has taken his game to a new level. He had two sacks Saturday after missing Friday's practice to be with his ailing grandmother in the hospital.

"Everything we've gone through this season has brought us to this point," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said.

The Panthers will play at Seattle on Saturday or Green Bay on Sunday in the divisional round. This is not the same Carolina team that lost to both during the regular season -- 13-9 to Seattle and 38-17 to Green Bay. It's definitely not the same defense. The addition of more speed to the secondary -- thanks to cornerbacks Josh Norman and Bené Benwikere, as well as safety Tre Boston -- has had a huge impact.

This unit has hit on the right mixture and chemistry at the right time. That the offense continues to pound opponents with the run game -- 188 yards Saturday, six shy of the average the previous five games -- also is reason for optimism.

But on this day, even the run game was overshadowed by the defense.

"Holding them to [78] yards?" Olsen said. "Playoff football against that team, we'll take it."