Revisiting Panthers' unlikely 2014 playoff run: Can they do it again in weak NFC South?

Is the Carolina Panthers' defense strong enough to carry the team to the NFC South championship and a spot in the NFL playoffs this season? Rob Carr/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In 2014, the Carolina Panthers came off their bye week with had five games left in the season. Every team in the NFC South had a losing record and Carolina’s got worse after a 31-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, who returned two blocked kicks for touchdowns on a 12-degree day at the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium.

A sixth-straight loss dropped the Panthers to third in the division at 3-8-1, a game-and-a-half behind the New Orleans Saints. Most of the football world wrote them off. Even Carolina players doubted their ability to succeed.

“Right now, we’re not very good,’’ tight end Greg Olsen said that day.

Then-coach Ron Rivera never stopped believing.

“I collected all the articles that were saying it’s time to start thinking about next year and read them out to the players,’’ recalled Rivera, now the head coach of the Washington Commanders. “I said, ‘If any of you f---ing guys quit, I will make sure you’re not here [next year]. We aren’t going to quit. We have a chance to win the division if we take care of our business.’ ’’

Four games later, the 7-8-1 Panthers were NFC South champions and headed to a first-round playoff win against the Arizona Cardinals.

Fast-forward to this season.

The Panthers are 4-8 coming off their bye with five games remaining, beginning with a road trip to face the Seattle Seahawks (7-5) on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox). They are third in the division, two games behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-6) and half game behind the Atlanta Falcons (5-8), both teams they have beaten. The Saints are last at 4-9.

Most have written them off, but not interim coach Steve Wilks, who was the secondary coach in 2014 under Rivera. He’s taken the same “win the day’’ mantra that Rivera did eight years ago, reminding players they have a division title to fight for because “as a leader, you’ve got to give them a vision.’’

Can the 2022 Panthers pull off the same type of finish? That Wilks can’t promise.

But he can promise, as Rivera did in 2014, he won’t let players give up.

“As a leader, you’ve got to make sure that you create the tone,’’ Wilks said. “I’m all about keeping it one day at a time. I have a vision. I see certain things.’’

What do the 2022 Panthers have in common with the 2014 team that could push them into the playoffs again -- and what are the pitfalls that could leave them short?

How did the 2014 team do it?

The weak NFC South

The division was a mess in 2014 with Carolina, New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay combining to go 10-29-1 against teams outside the division. That the Panthers had a game left with all three division opponents over the final four weeks put destiny somewhat in their own hands.

“You felt like if you could get it on track that we had a chance,’’ said long-snapper JJ Jansen, the only player on the current roster who was on the 2014 team. “Plus we were fortunate to have a leader [in Rivera] who exuded confidence, because I don’t know if any of the players felt confident.’’

That Rivera had the bulk of a lineup from a team that a season earlier won the division with a 12-4 record and was willing to unload veterans he felt weren’t delivering in favor of young players who did deliver also helped.

“They weren’t playing fast, they weren’t playing with the enthusiasm that I wanted,’’ Rivera said. “So we let go of them.’’

The late-season schedule

The Cleveland Browns, at 7-5, were the Panthers’ only opponent over the final four games with a winning record when they played them. And they weren’t very good, as they lost their last four games to finish 7-9.

Neither was the rest of the South, as was proved with their finishes -- New Orleans 2-2, Atlanta 1-3 and Tampa Bay 0-4.

The Panthers’ 4-0 finish, along with a 37-37 tie at Cincinnati earlier in the season, was just enough to win the division by half a game over the Saints at 7-9.

That was the vision Rivera had after the Minnesota loss.

Key quarterback performances

The tone was set for a turnaround in Week 14 with a 41-10 victory at New Orleans that got Carolina to 4-8-1. In that game, Cam Newton completed 21 of 33 pass attempts for 226 yards and three touchdowns, and he rushed 12 times for 83 yards and a touchdown.

Then two days later, Newton was involved in a two-vehicle wreck in which his truck flipped a couple of times on a street not far from Bank of America Stadium. He suffered two fractures in his lower back, forcing Rivera to turn to backup Derek Anderson in Week 15 against the Bucs.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself,’’ said Anderson, who threw for 277 yards and a touchdown in a 19-17 victory. “I really didn’t want to be the guy that ended it all for us. The biggest thing was there was no quit in anyone.’’

Carolina's defense

The Panthers, a season removed from finishing second in the NFL defensively, ranked only 21st in 2014, as they adjusted to not having sack leader Greg Hardy. The defensive end was place on the NFL commissioner’s exempt list after the first game while his domestic violence case was ongoing.

Still, they ranked higher than any other NFC South defense -- and it all came together over the final four weeks with Carolina giving up only 10.75 points a game, thanks to young players such as cornerback Josh Norman becoming big-time contributors.

“The Greg Hardy situation overshadowed everything early, plus Cam Newton had those cracked ribs in the preseason, and he didn’t start playing well till the end,’’ Rivera said. “Then all of a sudden those young players started to play and come on.’’

Finding an offensive identity

The Panthers averaged 199.25 yards rushing over the final four games after averaging 96.45 yards the first 11.

“When you run the ball, it opens up so many things,’’ Rivera said.

Anderson agreed but said the key still was Rivera’s leadership.

“In the beginning, when he said we could still win the division, I was like, ‘He’s crazy,’ ’’ Anderson said with a laugh. “And then we beat New Orleans and I was like, ‘Holy sh--! This is a real deal.’ ’’

Could the 2022 team do the same?

The weak NFC South

Like 2014, the division is a mess. The four teams are 12-24 in games outside the South and none has a winning record. That Carolina is tied with Tampa Bay for the best division record at 3-1 gives it an edge it didn’t have eight years ago when it was 1-2.

Like 2014, odds-makers agree the Panthers are done. ESPN analytics gives them a 3.8% chance to win the division, with Tampa Bay the overwhelming favorite at 92.3 after Monday night’s last-second win against New Orleans.

Wilks is staying focused on giving his team -- that has yet to win a road game or consecutive games this season -- a “playoff mentality’’ without focusing on playoff chances.

“It’s really trying to take care of each day,’’ he said. “Once we do that, we’ll look at the end and see where we are.’’

The late-season schedule

The Panthers have the easiest path among South teams with their opponents a combined winning percentage of 44.3%, just ahead of Atlanta’s at 44.9%. The Saints have the toughest road at 51.0% with Tampa Bay at 47.5%.

The next two weeks will be crucial with the Bucs playing at San Francisco (8-4) and at home against Cincinnati (8-4).

Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson isn’t looking beyond Sunday.

“It’ll be a better fight with a win instead of a loss,’’ he said.

Carolina's defense

The Panthers' defense is actually playing better than the 2014 unit in terms of points allowed (22.1 per game in 2022, 27.5 in 2014) and yards allowed (291.5, 329.0).

The difference right now is run defense. The 2014 unit allowed only 96.4 rushing yards over the last five games. The current team has surrendered 156.4 rushing yards over their past five games.

But there are encouraging signs. Carolina has given up only 12.6 points over their past three games and the defense is getting healthy with young stars such as safety Jeremy Chinn and cornerback Jaycee Horn back from injuries.

“I like the defense,’’ Rivera said. “The defense is stout.’’

Finding an offensive identity

The biggest difference in 2014 and 2022 may be at quarterback. Newton, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, was dynamic as a dual-threat player whose strong finish spring-boarded him to the NFL MVP a year later.

The Panthers have Sam Darnold, their third starter of the season. "Dynamic" has never been a word used to describe his game. Despite being the No. 3 overall pick in 2018, his career 18-32 record, 5-7 in two seasons with Carolina, isn’t a resume for a success.

But Rivera, who still watches Carolina games when he can, liked what Darnold did two weeks ago in a 23-10 victory over the Denver Broncos in which he threw and ran for a touchdown.

That the Panthers have committed to the running game as Rivera did in 2014 has helped. They’ve averaged 143.1 yards rushing the last six games, compared to 90.3 the first six.

“Their run game is dynamic,’’ Rivera said.

That and the development of young players that are starting to contribute, Rivera believes, gives Carolina a chance to repeat history.

“Absolutely,’’ he said. “They’ve got enough quality players that, hey, anything can happen.’’